Category Archives: Donald Westlake novels

Belated Reminder: A Westlake classic, Traveling once more.

 

Brother Clemence spoke first. “There’s no record of the lease with the County Clerk,” he told us. “I swear to you that when I expressed surprise at that, an ancient clerk there snapped at me, ‘Don’t you know there was a war on?’ Meaning the Revolution. Most of New York City was held by the British under martial law throughout the Revolution, and many deeds and leases and other legal papers just didn’t get properly recorded. A transfer of property would eventually have found its way into the records, but a simple rental doesn’t create as many legal necessities.”

Brother Dexter said, “But the lease is still binding, isn’t it, even if it isn’t recorded?”

“So long as one party retains a copy of it and wishes to enforce it,” Brother Clemence said, “it’s still binding. But I just wish I could get a look at the wording of the thing. Brother Oliver, still no luck with our copy?”

“I spent all day searching for it,” Brother Oliver said mournfully, and the dust smudges on his cheeks and the tip of his nose bore silent witness. “I’ve searched everywhere, I was even in the attic. I went through every page of VEILED FOR THE LORD, just in case it had been put in there by mistake.”

Brother Clemence squinted, “VEILED FOR THE LORD?”

“Brother Wesley’s fourteen-volume novel,” Brother Oliver explained, “based on the life of Saint Jude the Obscure.”

“I’ve never actually read that,” Brother Hilarius commented. “Do you recommend it?”

“Not wholeheartedly,” Brother Oliver told him.

Brother Clemence, who was usually a jovial galumphing St. Bernard sort of man, could become a bulldog when his attention was caught, and this time his attention had been caught for fair. “I need that lease,” he said, his heavy white-haired head thrusting forward over the refectory table as though he would chomp the missing lease in his jaws. “I need to look at it, I need to see the wording.

Absent-minded as I am, it had quite slipped my mind that Brothers Keepers was due out in early February, courtesy of Hard Case Crime. (Well, it was a Hard Case edition of a never-before-published Westlake novel that told us in grim detail how unreliable a tool memory can be.)

As is their usual custom there, the book is available both as an e-edition and a reasonably priced paperback, complete with misleadingly sexy cover.  In fairness, there is intercourse other than the social in this one, and at least they got Ms. Flattery’s hair color right (though she doesn’t look very Irish to me with that golden tan–must be the Puerto Rican sunshine).

I quite like this art, which covers the bases, story wise.  My heart will always belong to the original M. Evans dust jacket, which puts full emphasis on the monastery and its dowdy yet doughty denizens.  But that more contemplative approach, appropriate though it may be, doesn’t work for a crime novel in paperback.

Begging the question–is this a crime novel?  I would assume somebody at Hard Case must have posed the question at some point.  A few people get punched.  A few documents are pilfered.  A foiled mugging in Central Park.  A monastic vow of chastity is repeatedly and pleasurably broken.

The only malefactor of note in the piece is an avaricious and unapologetic New York City real estate developer, seeking to destroy a beautiful old building to put up an ugly glass tower, caring not that this will destroy the lives of a handful of monks whose order is so obscure, one suspects the Vatican has no inkling of its existence.

A very white collar crime novel, one must conclude.  But that is, after all, the sort of crime many of us are most concerned with of late, or ought to be.

I go back and forth over which of Westlake’s comic novels that isn’t about Dortmunder is my personal favorite, but I always come back to this, and have long lamented its absence from the ranks of books in print.

Precisely because it’s so hard to slot, it’s been hard to find a lasting home for it, and all glory and praise to Charles Ardai & Co. for returning it to us, like an illuminated manuscript of the deed to a long-neglected sanctum sanctorum of the soul, where the primary object of contemplation is human folly–and the joys of brotherhood.  And, of course, the perilous possibilities of Travel.  Broadens the mind, they do say.  But that depends very much on what spirit it is undertaken in.

Of Mr. Westlake’s problem books, the two outstanding absentees are now Adios Scheherazade and A Likely Story.  I have been known to put a bug in the ear of the odd publisher about their absence from the rolls.  And it would take a very odd publisher indeed to take a chance on either, but what joy to see them breathe again.  To present their problems to us–which are still our problems today.  We need to take another look at them. We need to see the wording.

Sorry for the long absence–I’ve got things in mind, and if I can just relocate my mind (which has been absent, as mentioned), I’ll get to them.  In the meantime, I see The Official Westlake Blog has found a few covers for this one I had not heretofore encountered–and my fidelity to the M. Evans dustjacket is now sorely beset–

brothers_keepers_japan1_1

From Japan–and I think I’m not the only one who recognizes this is the same unsung genius who did several Dortmunder covers I’ve showcased here in past.  (It’s so breathtakingly wonderful, I don’t even care that Eileen’s hair is the wrong color.)

The title translates to We Are Salvation to the Saints, and I’m just now realizing how well the story would translate to a Buddhist monastery or Shinto Shrine, threatened by development in Tokyo or Osaka.  Now that would have been a great Kurosawa film.

Here’s the Rivages edition–

brothers_keepers_france1_1

Droll indeed, and Rivages continues, in its own modern way, the classic tradition of Le Série Noire–ie, never pay for original cover art if you can possibly avoid it.  Never mind if it fits the story or  not!  It is noir, ne c’est pas?  Non?  Read the book and stop complaining!  Hopefully at least they shelled out for a decent translation.  But Rivages publishes more Westlake than any other house I’m aware of.

brothers_keepers_5

Same title used by an Argentinian publisher, but I believe this edition hails from Spain.   And I don’t like it one bit, but I like that the birthplace of so many religious orders has its own edition.  Curious–does the term Brothers Keepers (derived from a familiar children’s taunt) not translate into any language other than English?  Well, at least there’s the actual English–

brothers_keepers_uk2_1

brothers_keepers_uk2_2

Good old Hodder and Staunton.  Not a bad job at all.  But I’m still all agog over the Japanese cover. How many more Westlakes did this luminary illuminate?

Hey, if there’s anybody out there who can read Japanese–can you see the name of the artist?  I think I want to erect a shrine to him. Or her.

brothers_keepers_japan1_2

brothers_keepers_japan1_3

Now if you’ll excuse me, I have some Traveling to do.  Metaphorically and literally.

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Mr. Westlake and The Fuehrers

ROBERT PRATT SAT AT the typewriter and tried to ignore the call of the August sun outside his window. The air-conditioner kept this second floor study cool, but just beyond the glass summer beckoned, a sunny August Sunday that wanted no one indoors. His one concession to the season was the bottle of beer beside the typewriter on his battered desk, but the bottle too kept distracting him from the paper he was writing.

He re-read, for the tenth time, the last sentence on this page: “America is moving inexorably toward a Fuehrer, possibly by the end of this decade, certainly by the end of the century.” Did he actually believe that? Not as surely as he’d made it sound, though he did think the erosion toward an omnipotent leader was well under way and would only with great difficulty be stopped in time. Still, in any case, it would be best to copper his bets a little; he changed the period at the end of the sentence to a comma, and added, “Unless unforeseeable changes take place.”

She said, “I read his article today. The one about the Fuehrer. I hadn’t known people were thinking that way at all.”

“From the highest to the lowest,” Bradford said. “I think perhaps that’s the advantage of retirement, one can step outside the action and see it from a different perspective, not get caught by the received truths that everybody else absorbs without noticing.”

“I’d never known that was possible, to have a whole shift in the way people think, without anybody noticing.”

“Look at a ten-year-old fashion magazine,” Bradford said, “and you’ll see the same thing operating on a different level. The clothes will look foolish to you, you’d be embarrassed to be seen wearing any of them. Try to remember how much you admired clothing like that at the time, and you can’t do it. The memory is gone. You know you must have liked that clothing, you can remember owning things very much like it, but to remember your attitude then is impossible.”

I was born in Brooklyn, New York, on July 12th, 1933, and I couldn’t digest milk.  Not mother’s milk, nor cow’s milk, nor goat’s milk, not anybody’s milk.  Nor could I digest any of the baby formulas then available.  Everything they fed me at the hospital ran right through me, leaving mere traces of nutrients behind.  On the fourth day, the doctors told my parents to prepare for the worst: “He’ll be dead by his eighth day.” Just another squirming little bundle of muscle and heat that didn’t make it.

Then, on the fifth day, the doctors learned about an experimental baby formula, based on soybeans, nearing the end of its trials in a hospital in Manhattan.  There was nothing else to try, so phone calls were made, the formula was shipped from Manhattan to Brooklyn, and for the first time in my young life I found something I could tolerate.

If I’d been born three months earlier, I was dead in eight days.  If I’d been born in Baltimore, or Boston, much less some small town somewhere, or anywhere else in the world, I was dead in eight days.  Only a surprise ending saved my life.

From the unpublished memoirs of Donald E. Westlake, excerpted in The Getaway Car. 

July 12, 1933 (Wednesday)

The Vienna newspaper Oesterreichische Abendblatt published a three-page story claiming proof that Adolf Hitler was “directly descended on his mother’s side” from a Jewish family in Czechoslovakia, and that there were at least ten Jewish persons named Hitler in the city of Polná. Alexander Basch, the recently deceased city registrar, had identified a sister of Hitler’s grandmother as having been a Jew who moved from Polna to Vienna when both places were part of the Austro-Hungarian Empire.

Born: Donald E. Westlake,75, American mystery author with 65 novels under 16 pseudonyms; (d. 2008)

From Wikipedia Timeline (both entries for this date contain questionable assertions). 

Imagine you grew up knowing two things about yourself:

1)If you’d been born a bit earlier, or in a different place, you’d have starved to death in eight days.

2)While you were being kept alive by capricious arbitrary events, threadbare plot contrivances that would cause any self-respecting editor to throw his/her hands up in despair, a WWI corporal with a dysfunctional personality and some problematic ideas claimed absolute power over a major western nation.

The NSDAP became the only legal party in Germany on July 14th, 1933–same date they created the first modern eugenics law–basically,  full-on Nazification took place during Westlake’s gestation and early infancy.

(I don’t write any of this stuff, you know.  Don’t look at me.)

Now of course, you can’t be born at all in this world without barging in on some catastrophe or other, since the thing about history is it never stops, even if you ask it nicely.  But this is, you must admit, a higher order of coincidence than usual.  All the more since Westlake spent much of his life writing about the never-ending battle between the independents and the organization men–as good a term as any for Nazi, though not all organization men are Nazis.  It’s a large category.

And that may not be coincidence at all.  Westlake’s attitude towards authority probably gelled quite early in life.  Plausible it was formed, in part, by his growing awareness of what was going on in the world when he first entered it.  We look for patterns, and they’re always there.  Maybe we just imagine them.  I’m sure that’s it.

As I said when I first reviewed Ex Officio, his only novel centered around a politician, Westlake will not be remembered as a political writer.  He nonetheless approached the subject on a regular basis, most often by circuitous pathways. If he’d taken a different path in life…..

His own politics can be something of a puzzlement–a strong liberal on most social issues, such as equal rights for black people, immigrants, gays, everybody. His understanding of the way Hitler and many others used fear and distrust of outsider groups to make people act against their interests is exceptionally strong. You take away anyone else’s freedom, you imperil your own.  And nothing undermines your identity more than attacking someone else’s.

More conservative on economics, as you’d expect from someone who made his living a book at a time.  He’s distrustful of government interference in private life, to the point where he wrote an early short story that seems to indicate he thought Medicare was an infringement of American liberty.  He belonged to at least one writer’s union (probably several), but some of his later work could be interpreted as supporting ‘right to work’ laws, at least when it comes to outfits like the Teamsters.  Straddles the fence there.

He wrote an article for The Weekly Standard (RIP) that seems to be an endorsement of the way George W. Bush addressed 9/11, but this was before the Iraq War started, it was more insult than encomium, and I doubt it got him on the shortlist for any White House galas.  He seems to have mainly written it because William Kristol was a fan.  (Nobody’s all bad.  And Bill’s one of the last Never-Trumpers standing.  Welcome to the struggle, comrade.)

He may even have had some doubts about Social Security (see The Jugger), but those were expressed early in his career, when he was young and healthy (another durable pattern–even Ayn Rand accepted Social Security and Medicare–for herself–when she got old and sick and broke.)

But you’d be dead wrong to slot him as a Libertarian.  His science fiction novel, Anarchaos, which he wrote very early in his career (then went out of his way to get published at basically no profit to himself), evinces a corrosive skepticism towards Anarchist/Libertarian ideas, verging on outright derision.  You need a social structure to keep order, a strong central authority chosen by the people–if only to rebel against.  And to provide a check against perhaps the most insidious organization men of all–the CEOs.  My best summation of his standpoint towards the plague of bureaucracy (as opposed to autocracy) is that the true individualist will learn how to get around it, and the rest won’t know what to do without it.  From each according to his means….

Distrustful of the Left, disgusted by the Right, he could be disdainful towards both.  The far Left and Right he disowned without qualification–as Orwell told us, pigs is pigs, and it doesn’t matter which side of the table they sit on.

One book might be about how Corporate America quietly plotted to institute a new form of feudalism, install a sort of figurehead Democracy, while they did whatever they pleased behind the scenes; only they hadn’t reckoned on a star crossed pack of small time crooks stumbling into the path of their juggernaut, gumming up the works, buying the rest of us some time.

Another might be about how 60’s radicals who decided to work outside the system (with guns and bombs) were mainly doing it for themselves, not the people.  Acting out poorly understood identity crises, making other people die for their ideas, drawing out the bloody farce a few years too long.  A comedy that never really finishes, since there’s always a new cast warming up in the wings.

A mixed bag politically was Mr. Westlake.  Not reliably in the corner of anyone with power, because he assumed no one in power, no matter how pure their intentions, would ever be reliably in our corner.  Power over others corrupts your intentions, your ideas, your ethics, your very sense of self.  Lord Acton would concur.  As would Karl Popper, who said the question of Democracy isn’t who should have the power, but how to prevent anyone from getting too much.  Negative Liberty, which then allows Positive Liberty its greatest practical range for the greatest number and variety of individuals.  (In theory.)  If the individual has no rights, nobody does, since the ‘masses’ are just a collection of individuals. 

But for all of these potential threats to liberty that Mr. Westlake wrote about (around, really), he avoided dealing with the one threat he most feared–the one whose shadow he was born in.  Suppose people just handed over their liberty to the least trustworthy trustee imaginable, because they were tired of it–weary of the sordid scrum of politics, the clamor of short-sighted interest groups, looking for what comes after politics–enforced unanimity.  Which we somehow always think will favor us.

Well, he wrote mainly crime fiction, set mainly in the present day, mainly in America.  There wasn’t much opportunity to write about dictatorship.  We’ve never had one.  Not yet. Anyway, Sinclair Lewis did that already.  (And Philip Roth, later on.)

Why did Westlake, when the story was pitched to him out of the blue, instantly agree to write a train heist story set in Idi Amin’s Uganda, start out to make it comic, then turn it into a somber rumination on the atrocities of that regime, set against the flawed humanity and basic decency of the people who set out to steal from it?  Because the notion that one man could have so much power over so many both fascinated and revolted him, and his heroes were always individualists–individualism being the bane of autarchs everywhere.  (He goes out of his way to mention that the assault that ultimately toppled Amin came through a place in Tanzania called West Lake.)

Tinpot foreign dictators appear throughout his work, but are not covered in any depth, because the form he’s writing in doesn’t allow for it–and he’s got other points to get across.  Still, you can hear him thinking–“If there was a Hitler in America, or a Stalin, or an Amin, or a Castro, or a Pinochet?–where would Parker be then?  Where would Dortmunder be?  Where would I be?”  Squarely behind the eight ball, that’s where.

Under an absolutist state, he’d probably have to switch over to westerns or science fiction–something based in settings too abstracted from daily life to be taken as a commentary on it. (Hitler loved those Karl May adventures with Old Shatterhand and Winnetou, which have somehow never caught on in the English speaking world).  No evidence the worst criminal in history ever liked crime fiction, which actually had a pretty good run in Weimar Germany, Fritz Lang and such.  Degenerate art!  Into the flames with it!

Just to show that all historical analogies have their limits, I must now concede that Herr Trump’s tastes are different (can you imagine him sitting through an entire Wagnerian  opera, or any opera?)  He loves crime fiction.  Not in print form,  since that would entail reading, but movies. The Godfather and Goodfellas in particular.  Stories that emphasize honor among thieves, a central authority figure overseeing their efforts, a code of omerta, and of course these stories deal a lot with traitors and stoolpigeons, and their various unpleasant fates. And lots of willing wayward women, we should not forget.

These are stories written from the perspective of gangsters, and on some level sympathizing with them, though one suspects Mr. Trump has focused more on the seamy glamor of the milieu than the morals behind the stories–which isn’t that uncommon.

I’ve mentioned before Westlake’s attitude towards criminal syndicates–just another system designed to undermine individuality.  How often he writes stories where the lone wolves of crime take on the organization men, take them out.  He never romanticizes the mob.  A mob is the thing he most devoutly wishes not to be a part of.   But he would still have found it interesting that America’s first potential Fuehrer so self-consciously modeled himself after Mafiosi, real and fictive. That’s a distinctly American approach to autocracy.

See, we all know what foreign dictators look like, their speech patterns, how they comport themselves in public, because we’ve seen the movies, the newsreel footage, and whatever the hell it was Leni Riefenstahl was doing.  The part they never show is how the dictator got all that power to begin with.  Westlake’s dictators, fictive or real, don’t address that point.  There isn’t time, and there isn’t a market (he couldn’t even find many takers for Kahawa, which is a bloody good book).

Closest any major movie ever came to showing Hitler’s origins was Max, where John Cusack’s Jewish art dealer tries to defang young Adolph by making a successful artist of him.  (Might have worked–and it’s not as if bad art never sells).  Hardly anyone has seen that film.  We prefer stories about his downfall–better meme fodder.

So in Mr. Westlake’s body of work, we see either aspiring despots, or fully realized ones–never do we see that transitional moment that links the two.  Because he writes stories set in the present, mainly in America, and It Can’t Happen Here–Sinclair Lewis’ title was closer to reality than the book itself, which imagined some populist demagogue like Huey Long defeating FDR, then installing a corrupt racist anti-democratic regime, that starts to crumble when its promises all turn out to be lies.  Oddly familiar now, but still overstated, off-balance.  Like one of those novels where the Axis won WWII or the South won the Civil War.  Could it happen?  Sure.  Would it?  Probably not.

Truth is, Democracy was too well-rooted here by Lewis’ time to be undone in a single stroke.  Still is, thankfully.   But nobody runs forever.  How might our run come to an end?

In one novel, Westlake imagined precisely that–without showing it.   And he, like Lewis, was reacting to recent events.  Extrapolating from them.  Less dramatically, and I would argue, more presciently.

His argument, in brief, is that Left and Right are collaborators in the downfall of Democracy.  That each is dissatisfied with the compromises inherent to that system of government, looking for an end run around it.  When enough people stop believing in incremental change, you get dictatorship and revolutionary change, which ends up not working out as advertised.

And this is a fair summation of what happened in Germany, under Hitler.  The Far Right took power with the unwitting help of the Far Left, which then took power when the Far Right was done in by an alliance dominated by centrists, only to collapse under its own weight 46 years later.  And now the former command center of the Far Left is helping the Far Right in America take power.  (I swear I don’t write any of this.)

But see, this is me talking, much more than Westlake.  Trying to understand what’s going on around me, find the pattern, rationalize the irrational, which is comforting, if also disquieting.  This isn’t the Fred Fitch Review.  What was it Westlake was trying to say with an odd cul de sac subplot in a political thriller few people read then, and even fewer now (though it is evailable)?  A subplot I gave extremely short shrift to in my review of that thriller, it should be noted–because at the time I thought it was a bit of a red herring.  Now I’m not so sure.

In Ex Officio, Robert Pratt, football player turned history professor, love interest for the heroine, has stumbled on a new idea, inspired by the Presidential election of 1968 (still fresh in the memory when Westlake wrote this 1970 novel).  Eugene McCarthy, appealing strongly to young anti-war voters and the left wing of the Democratic Party, sabotaged the reelection hopes of Lyndon Johnson (who Westlake didn’t like), only to fail to win the nomination.

Humphrey seemed too complicit after McCarthy and the murdered RFK, the Democrats had held the White House two terms, the once staunchly Democrat south never forgave LBJ the Civil Rights Act, and the country generally seemed to be coming apart at the seams, both generational and racial.

And thus Richard Nixon eked out a narrow win with a bit of chicanery involving secret negotiations with a hostile foreign power.  Only to crush another left-wing Democrat in 1972, then be forced into resignation over still more chicanery, but Westlake didn’t know all that then.  (If we’re being honest, most Americans probably don’t know all that now.)

The characters in Ex Officio, all part of a sprawling extended family with a former President at its center, like to talk about the politics of their day, and just like us, the discussion disturbs and dismays even while it stirs and stimulates.  The occasion for the first conversation is, of all things, an attempt to fix up ex-President Bradford Lockridge’s lonely widowed granddaughter, Evelyn Canby, with a nice fella, namely Robert.

The President of the college Robert works for, wouldn’t you know, is Sterling Lockridge, Bradford’s brother.  He is married to a kvetchy old liberal (she’d say progressive now) named Elizabeth, who likes Robert (he roomed with a nephew of hers, which is how he got the teaching job, and why she’s trying to fix him up with Evelyn), but loses patience with his stick-in-the-mud centrism sometimes.  Their latest joust begins as they’re making the long drive to Bradford’s estate.

THE TRIP, ALL IN all, took an hour and a half. Their route skirted every town along the way, so that once out of Lancashire they didn’t see another populated area until they arrived at Eustace, which turned out to be a surprisingly sleepy little town that obviously hadn’t allowed the international fame of one of its citizens to alter its style and pace.

Robert sat forward as they drove through town, his elbows on the seat back, and said, “Take away the automobiles and you could make a movie here and call it 1925.” Sterling, at the wheel, chuckled and nodded, but Elizabeth said, “That’s better than calling it 1984.”

At sixty-two, five years younger than her husband, Elizabeth was a tall and straight and slender woman, her face very little lined, her hair gray but well-cared-for, her mental faculties and political impatiences intact.

Robert looked at her grim profile in some surprise. “Do you really think that’s a possibility?”

“More and more every day,” she said, and turned to glance at him; he saw her eyes take in his crewcut.

“I’ll grant you we’re on a swing away from liberalism,” Robert said, “but it’s only a swing. The country is heading for conservatism again, but sooner or later the pendulum will start back. It always does. America has always had its Know Nothing party, and it’s always had its Abolitionists.”

Elizabeth’s expression was cynical. “The right-wingers want to stop the clock entirely, you know, and one of these times they’ll make it. Then the pendulum won’t come back at all. That’s what Orwell was talking about.”

“I don’t see it happening,” Robert said. “I know the political history of this country, and the whole story is summed up in the pendulum swinging between left and right.”

“The reason I worked for Eugene McCarthy,” Elizabeth said, “is because he was the only man in public life to stand up and say that kind of thinking was fuzzy-headed and dangerous. Complacency will do more harm to this country than a full-scale atomic attack.”

Sterling, humor in his voice, said, “Robert, for God’s sake don’t get her started now. She gives poor Brad enough hell every time they meet as it is, for not bringing peace on Earth during his administration.”

“If any one man on the planet could do it,” Elizabeth said fiercely, “it’s the President of the United States. He’s the only one with anything approaching the power, the public attention and the prestige. I’ve told Brad that before, and I’ll tell him again. The hour is too late for politics as usual.”

“See what you’ve done,” Sterling said, looking at Robert in the rearview mirror. “On your head be it.”

“Oh, don’t worry, I’ll be good,” Elizabeth said. “It’s too late for him now, he’s missed his opportunity. I’ve told him that, too, more than once. Besides, this is Robert’s day. I promise I won’t hog the conversation.”

At Bradford’s house, Elizabeth doesn’t hog the conversation so much as guide it, to subjects like NATO (should we junk it?) and Hitler (could it happen again?)

Robert argues the former is mainly a belated reaction to the former, which is true, but of course none of them know the Soviet Union will be gone in a handful of years, replaced by a right-wing capitalist dictatorship with odd religious underpinnings, ruled by a former KGB agent, who will then start looking for ways to reconstitute the old Red Empire under a new name, and may help bring about Elizabeth’s worst nightmare.  The thing about political discussions from an earlier era is that they can seem at once timely and dated.  It will be no different for our era.

Bradford smiled, but he said, “Is that merely a funny joke, or do you mean it?”

“I mean it,” Robert said. “At the beginning of the Cold War, the government knew it had to reassure the people that they were safe, so they—” But at that point he suddenly became aware again of who he was talking to, and faltered. “That is, the way it worked out—”

“That’s all right,” Bradford said gently. “That was before my administration.”

Robert gave him a grateful smile and said, “Thank you, sir. The point was, there was no defense against the Third World War, but the people were going to lose confidence in a government that didn’t promise to defend them, so what they were given was a perfectly adequate defense against the war we’d just won. The whole object of NATO, besides coordinating European military policy, was to give people the comfortable feeling that something was being done.”

Mrs. Canby, who until now hadn’t said a word throughout the meal, suddenly said, “Isn’t that awfully cynical, Mr. Pratt? The people I’ve met in government have tended to be more honest than that.”

Robert turned to her, both in surprise at hearing her speak up and in relief at the opportunity to get out from under Bradford Lockridge’s scrutiny for a few seconds. “I hope it isn’t cynical,” he said. “I don’t really believe that someone sat down in the White House or somewhere and cynically worked out this whole complex global con game to delude the masses. I believe the people generally were scared and worried, and their attitude communicated itself to the decision-makers—”

Bradford interposed, “Who were possibly themselves also scared and worried.”

“Of course,” Robert said, turning back to him for an instant. “People in government I’m sure have the same doubts and the same need for reassurance as people outside. More, even, because they know more about the near misses.” He turned back to Mrs. Canby, saying, “The people in charge did the best they could, but the problem was insoluble because there really isn’t any defense against the kind of weapons that now exist.” He turned to Bradford again, saying, “We aren’t too far from Pittsburgh, are we, sir?”

“About a hundred miles,” Bradford said. “Perhaps a little more.”

“Thank you.” To Mrs. Canby again he said, “Pittsburgh would be a prime target if an all-out war started. Hit Pittsburgh with one of today’s bombs, and everybody in this house would die, and no one would be able to live in this neighborhood for the next seven years.”

Howard said, “There are clean bombs.”

Robert said, “If someone were anxious enough to destroy the United States to launch a nuclear war, I really doubt they would use clean bombs. In fact, the dirtier the better. The people you don’t burn to death you radiate to death.”

Mrs. Canby said, “This is really terrible lunchtime conversation.”

“Exactly my point,” Robert told her. “You would rather believe that our World War Two defenses are adequate, because the alternative is to understand that there isn’t any defense at all.”

Elizabeth said, “But that doesn’t seem to matter, does it? You said a little while ago that there wouldn’t be any Third World War anyway.”

“I was too hasty when I said that,” Robert admitted. “Then I was reminded of Hitler.”

Howard said, “But a Hitler isn’t very likely at this point in history. Not in Russia, anyway. What Bradford said before about fiscal policy is what does it. Russia isn’t poor enough. You have to have an advanced industrial nation that happens to be very poor before you have a people who’ll produce a Hitler, and that just isn’t a description of today’s Russia.”

“I’ll tell you what it is a description of,” Robert said. “China.”

China (before Nixon went there) is the villain of this thriller, not Russia, and nobody in this story knows about the internet (though ARPANET was just starting up when Westlake was writing), or understands asymmetric warfare terribly well, which is why we lost the Vietnam War.  Frankly, a lot of the ideas presented here were out of date within a few years of the novel’s publication, if not before Westlake started writing them down.

It’s hard to know how seriously Westlake, writing as Timothy J. Culver (a pseudonym he came to despise) took any of what he wrote here, but I feel it’s a safe bet some of his disdain for his Culver persona was based around the way Culver kept committing himself to concepts that were almost certainly going to have a brief shelf life, because of the way the world keeps convulsing around us.  Timely fiction isn’t often timeless.

He knew better than to think himself an expert on geopolitics, but had some conflicting perceptions he needed an outlet for, and this was it.  He takes all of the opinions expressed here seriously, because he himself has entertained all of them–just as when you see a Shaw play performed, you have a hard time knowing which character the playwright most identifies with, because he identifies with all of them, and none.  And both men knew nobody ever has all of the truth, that no mind can ever contain it all–making it more utilitarian (and dramatic) to give everyone in the conversation one slice of the philosophic pie.

In this story, he probably does give Mr. Pratt the edge, since Robert is, after all, the virile square-jawed hero required for this form, who wins (then saves) the girl.  But also because as a student of history (one of his creator’s passions), he is best-suited to get across the ideas Westlake is turning around in his head.  (And yet, he’s given him a last name that isn’t exactly a synomym for genius.)

So even though the first meeting with Evelyn didn’t turn out so well, Elizabeth still got Robert’s juices flowing, with her belief in the imminent demise of liberal Democracy– but old football player that he is, he’s not just taking the ball but running with it.

Yes. Now to the subject of the piece: “Eugene McCarthy was probably our only chance for a Fuehrer from the left. With his apparently irreversible defeat, the political left has reverted to its usual rudderless structureless condition, and left the field open for a Fuehrer from the right. The dangers in, say, a successful George Wallace are self-evident, but what are the dangers in a takeover by a Fuehrer from the left?”

Robert took a swig of beer and studied the typewriter moodily. What are the dangers? For that matter, what are the dangers in speculation built on speculation built on speculation? If it were really possible to guess what sort of President a man would be, who would have voted for Lyndon Johnson? The concept of Eugene McCarthy as a Fuehrer from the left rested on such an array of interlocked suppositions that Robert felt himself afraid to take a deep breath, for fear the whole conceit would collapse like a vampire in the sun.

It was Elizabeth Lockridge who should be writing this article in the first place, most of the ideas in it having been generated by her, starting with that ride down to meet Bradford Lockridge three months ago, when Robert’s complacent pendulum theory had decided her his political education urgently needed to be brought up to date. The number of dinners he’d shared with Sterling and Elizabeth since then were uncountable, but at all of them the scene was the same; gentle Sterling watching in quiet amusement while Elizabeth and Robert argued their way through the last decade of American politics.

And slowly she had convinced him of the truth of most of what she believed, though he had ultimately taken her beliefs one step farther, adding his own twist of interpretation and coming up with the idea of the Fuehrer from the left. She it was who had convinced him that the American people were weary of freedom, made nervous by it, ready and anxious to give over their liberties to a man strong enough to demand them, but it was he who pointed out that the same weariness and nervousness were evident on the increasingly radicalized left, which had in 1968 turned to McCarthy not so much as a political alternative as a messiah. “And a messiah,” he’d said, “is simply a Fuehrer we agree with.”

Elizabeth had not agreed, had argued that McCarthy was not a man to allow himself to be used that way, and Robert had replied that he doubted McCarthy would have been given the choice. The whole concept of a Fuehrer from the left remained too contradictory for Elizabeth, however, and at that point they had bogged down, perhaps permanently.

But out of it all had come this article. Although his position as Sterling Lockridge’s nephew’s chum made the teaching profession’s dictum of ‘publish or perish’ not very compelling in Robert’s case, he did try to produce at least two articles a year for the historical journals, one written during the summer and the other during the Christmas recess. This one, relating to material less than a decade old, would probably be more controversial than his previous pieces, essays that he himself had termed “marching in place,” but some journal somewhere would surely make room for an article that raised the concept of a Fuehrer from the left.

The dangers. “Had McCarthy been nominated and elected in 1968,” Robert wrote, “his most vital first move would have had to be to determine his successor, since it seems inescapable that McCarthy himself would not have survived his first term of office. His death—his martyrdom, as it would with justice have been called—would undoubtedly have caused the death of the American electoral process as well, as his increasingly radicalized and isolated governmental apparatus would have been forced to a widening abrogation of liberties for the sake of public order.

“But who would be able to follow McCarthy, aside from another McCarthy, to be gunned down in his turn and followed by another doppelganger, and another, indefinitely? To make one of the obvious choices, to hand the reins to a Weimar Bolshevik like Allard Loewenstein, would simply be to form a caretaker government to await the truly strong man who would of necessity then emerge from the far right.”

Robert stopped again, drank some more beer, and studied that last paragraph. He didn’t like it. He didn’t like the specific references to Loewenstein, who was a living human being, not a chess piece, and therefore more complicated and in many ways more politically valuable than his two-word summation suggested. That was why Robert preferred to work with happenings remote enough for all the participants to be long since dead; with a living man, it was too possible to see oneself in his place, reading this essay.

He made the change in pen, so that the clause in question was altered to read, “to hand the reins to one of the Weimar Bolsheviks surrounding him.” He also disliked that sort of vague phraseology—Paul O’Dwyer, for instance, now became by implication lumped under a definition that Robert didn’t believe applied to him at all—but of the two evils vagueness was lesser to nastiness.

Unless you’re a follower of New York politics like Westlake (and myself, to a lesser extent), you’ll miss the significance of this.  The Annotated Ex Officio is no doubt many  years in the future, so let me catch you up.

Paul O’Dwyer, born in the County Mayo, kid brother of New York City mayor William O’Dwyer, whose short-lived well-liked mayoralty was plagued by police scandals and allegations of mob connections, was a mover and shaker in Gotham politics for many years.   I saw the younger O’Dwyer in person a few times before he passed, in all his silver-maned splendor.  Universally respected and largely irrelevant by then.  But for a time, he had real clout.

He endorsed Eugene McCarthy for President, and was in turn endorsed by him for the Senate.  (They both lost, but at least O’Dwyer got nominated.)

Like Robert (and Westlake, trying to see all sides), I don’t think “Weimar Bolshevik” is a fair appellation for O’Dwyer Óg, but it would be fair to say he was well left of center, while somehow remaining at the heart of city politics, and New York being New York, nobody thought this was so terribly strange, at least not from somebody who talked with a brogue.  (The Irish fight on both sides of every war.)

What’s flat-out ridiculous is to say that if McCarthy had somehow gotten elected President, and then got shot for his pains, that anybody like O’Dwyer would have succeeded him (let alone Lowenstein, who almost nobody remembers now, was good friends with William F. Buckley, and I just realized Westlake misspelled his last name).

He’d have been succeeded by his Vice President, and I see no reason to believe that would have been O’Dwyer, Lowenstein, or any ‘Weimar Bolshevik.’  It would have been whoever McCarthy felt could help get him the Presidency, that he sought again in 1976, and then endorsed Reagan in 1980, because he hated Jimmy Carter so damn much.  Probably someone significantly more mainstream than McCarthy, who could net him a swing state or three.

McCarthy’s left-wing creds were never all that bonafide, you ask me, but he seemed radical at the time Westlake was writing.  Politics is a multi-dimensional interactive continuum with currents that constantly mingle and diverge.  It’s not a straight line running from left to right.  That model didn’t even work during the French Revolution.

And the center is impossible to define, always.  We each make our own.  What’s interesting is how some of us place ourselves not at the center of the political continuum (while still remaining the center of the physical universe), but somewhere at its periphery–because to perceive yourself at the center of politics is to accept responsibility for the mess it’s invariably in.

Those who define themselves as the political center tend to be those who are most interested in the power implied by that position, as opposed to the responsibility–the unmoved movers and shakers.  Those such as The Fuehrers (Westlake’s preferred spelling, since he didn’t use the umlaut, because you can’t make one with a Smith Corona Silent Super).

What is Westlake really trying to say with this idea he presents to us in various forms in a book that is really about an ex-President having a small undetected stroke and consequently losing his ability to critically assess his own ideas, and the potential consequences of his actions?  Bradford Lockridge was never a dictator, nor aspired to be, and even in his altered post-stroke persona, he is little more than a brilliant monomaniac, desperately looking for some way to regain his influence in the world, unable to accept his own obsolescence.

He wants to run for congress, and is told that isn’t done anymore.  His younger brother has allowed himself to be used in an unscrupulous land development scheme, and Bradford pressures him to find a water source in the mountains to make it viable, which would bankrupt everyone involved (this leads to a suicide).

Then, intrigued by Robert’s new Fuehrer idea, and upset by a seemingly false overture from the Chinese government (that helped bring on his stroke), he decides to defect to China because he thinks that will bring about world peace.  He loathes totalitarianism, yet acts as if only his decisions are valid.  Partly because the stroke killed off his superego (call it a conscience if you like), and also because having had so much power, he can’t shake the habit of using it, even after it’s gone.

When you have a  job you like, you want to go on doing it, forever, because what you do is who you are.  If that job is taken from you, you will never be whole again until you’ve regained it, or found something to replace it.  Bradford believes his motives to be disinterested, altruistic, but at heart they are self-centered.  Westlake understands all too well.  He later wrote a much better novel on a similar subject, but that was about a guy laid off from a management job in a paper mill, not a President who lost a reelection bid.  And in many ways, it’s the same thing.  With one major difference–power.

Power corrupts, and what it corrupts is identity.  Your ability to perceive yourself accurately, with a proper sense of proportion, and of your own limitations.  Good or evil, straight or crooked–doesn’t matter.  It requires enormous strength of character to resist the temptations of power, and no one ever resists it completely.

It is a frightening but ever-present reality that sometimes people whose sense of their limits was poor to begin with acquire enormous power–their boundless narcissism appeals to many who are themselves chafing against the strictures of reality, filled with insecurities and social resentments they themselves can barely express.  Such individuals exert a sort of gravitational pull over others who don’t know themselves very well, instinctively seeking a mouthpiece to vent their frustrations.  And then you have a Fuehrer.  Or at least the potential for one.  It all depends on how many answer the call.

And while the term Fuehrer will always be associated with the right, some of the most dangerous and enduring manifestations have come from the left.  Stalin, Mao, Castro, Pol Pot.  But where Robert’s thesis seemingly falls short is that these were all military leaders, professional revolutionaries; men who gained power through armed struggle and intra-party machinations.  Not elections.  I guess there could always be a first time.

I put an early cover for Trollope’s The Way We Live Now up top because Westlake referenced it in another of his obliquely political works (now available for kindle), and that was no mere whim on his part.  He saw a kindred spirit there, a parallel consciousness.  Trollope had likewise seen a trend that bothered him, the deification of the conspicuously wealthy, the so-called ‘self-made’ man. Such a man climbs high and fast up the greasy pole of British politics in that book, only to slide back down to his doom, leaving chaos and confusion (and financial ruin) in his wake.

Something about that scenario bothered Mr. Westlake. In Trust Me On This, he spent much time analyzing the inner workings of an oddly influential supermarket tabloid, with conservative political leanings, and an overweening obsession with celebrity–and funny how things arrange themselves in this world, isn’t it?  Funny how patterns repeat themselves.  Funny how Life imitates Art imitates Life and back again.

So what is Westlake reacting to, here and elsewhere in his writing?  The chaos of the late 60’s.  The sense that everything was falling apart–and then it didn’t.  But what did happen?  The Left surged in significance–and the Right got stronger in response.  We were going to elect McCarthy or RFK, and then it turned out to be Nixon.  Then, after the brief Ford/Carter interregnum, Reagan.  Then Bush.  And another Bush.  Republicans have dominated Presidential politics for decades since the leftward shift of the 60’s.  We haven’t had a Fuehrer yet.  But one new President after another is accused of aspiring to that, and of late, the accusations seem less off-base.

What Westlake fears is imbalance.  The Left and Right no longer being able to communicate, each mistrusting each other to the point where a Fuehrer is preferable to the unpredictability and instability of mere Democracy (assuming it’s a Fuehrer you agree with).   Vacillating from one extreme to the next, and extremes in politics encourage each other, to the point where the worst name you can call anyone is ‘centrist.’

He saw it happen in the 60’s, he saw the rights and wrongs of the Rights and Lefts, and he began to despair that there was any longterm answer to the dilemmas of Democracy.  Democracy would end, if only because people were tired of the uncertainty, yearning for stasis, permanent answers, even if those answers would, by definition, have to be lies, since nothing is permanent, and Life is a state of never-ending flux, as Darwin bleakly informed us.  People would surrender their sacred individuality, their very souls, to politics, from fear of change, fear of The Other–and that, for someone like Westlake, is the ultimate dystopian nightmare.  A world where self-knowledge is thought crime.

And we’re getting close to it, aren’t we?  Grouping each other more and more by how we vote.  I do it myself.  I find it hard not to. And none of this is me saying it doesn’t matter.  It matters more than ever.  But not more than everything else in life.  Not more than yourself.  If you don’t know yourself, your vote will always be wrong, because it won’t be you.

Maybe it was just a passing black Irish mood he was in when he wrote this, but I see it now, happening around me, just as he did then, though in a different form than he imagined (and that would always be the case, no matter who was imagining it).  Aspiring Fuehrers of the Right, of the Left.  Promising what they can never deliver, if only we will follow them blindly–and suckers ready and eager to believe them, begging to be led down the proverbial garden path.  And I don’t know anymore than he did where the path ends.  Or if.

And that’s quite enough of that.  Anyway, I’m going to review some Brian Garfield novels next time.  About crime.  You know the ones.  Unless I do something else first.  Amazing I do anything at all.  And yes, I am still alive, aren’t I?  Happy New Year.  Thanks for listening.

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Filed under Donald Westlake novels, Uncategorized

Enconium: Mr. Dortmunder and Oleg, Часть третья (Part 3)

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They all trooped in, to view the unprecedented sight of Tiny in two aprons, overlapping, with a meat cleaver in one hand and a long wooden spoon in the other, with a lot of big pots and pans hissing and snarling on the stove.  What he looked mostly like was some darker version of Maurice Sendak’s In the Night Kitchen.  “Soup’s on at six,” he told them.

I wish I knew more about Oleg Zverkov.  I wish I could read testimonials to him (that would be in Russian), learn what he loved about the Dortmunder novels, and what else he loved besides them, get something of the tenor of his personality, the cut of his jib.

I wish he’d been one of my regulars in the comments section, back when I was reviewing the Dortmunders, giving us the Russian take on these books (Ray Garraty being more of a Parker kind of guy.)  I wish we could have swapped insights, interpretations, interests.  I wish most of all that Mr. Westlake himself could have lived to see these books, to hold them in his hands (and I would have made damn sure that happened).  But alas.  Not to be.

Westlake novels are, most of all, about ordinary people doing extraordinary things.  About individuals engaged in an open-ended process of self-discovery.  And thus, they attract readers who are themselves ordinary, yet capable of the extraordinary, and who are engaged in that process themselves.  Seeing the comedy and tragedy of life in equal measure, appreciating both, refusing to let one overwhelm the other.

And why, pray tell, should we not assume that such people exist everywhere, in every nation of the earth?  Nations as populous as China,  as expansive as Russia, as untamed as Brazil, as miniscule as Anguilla, as remote as Papua New Guinea.  This blog has been visited by one hundred and fifty-four such nations as of today.  The only major land masses I’m missing are Antarctica and Greenland.  I’ve got readers on lots of little islands too (Westlake would have liked that.)

And you know, wherever there are people, there are bosses, seeking to control them.  There are organization men, seeking to be controlled.  There are rich pricks, looking to buy us on the cheap.  And there are those who just don’t fit any of the available molds, who don’t belong anywhere, but would like to find some way they could, without selling themselves on the cheap.

And it’s to that last group that Westlake sings most passionately, telling them they’re not alone.  That they can prevail.  If only by dint of sheer persistence, self-knowledge, and pooling their diverse skills.  You can make a sound in this world.  You can be someone to reckon with.  Oleg was one of those.  That I know.

But this is an enconium.  Not precisely the same thing as a eulogy.  Nothing at all like an obituary.  So let’s finish looking at the work to which he gave his last full measure of devotion, and which will be completed, in spite of his departure.

That’s the good news.  Here’s the other kind.  Title page and end papers.

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(You know, I’m guessing PC is never going to be a thing in Russia.)

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Hide? Where? Nowhere. The shelves were packed full and high. If this were a traditional department store, he could at least try to pretend to be a mannequin in the men’s clothing section, but these discount places were too cheap to have full entire mannequins. They had mannequins that consisted of just enough body to drape the displayed clothing on.

Pretending to be a headless and armless mannequin was just a little too far beyond Dortmunder’s histrionic capabilities. He looked around, hoping at least to see something soft to bang his head against while panicking, and noticed he was just one aisle over from the little line of specialty shops, the pharmacy and the hair salon and the video rental and the optician.

The optician.

Could this possibly be a plan that had suddenly blossomed like a cold sore in Dortmunder’s brain? Probably not, but it would have to do.

As the individual all those legislators most specifically had in mind when they enacted their three-strikes-you’re-out life-imprisonment laws, Dortmunder felt that any plan, however loosely basted together, had to be better than simple surrender. His wallet tonight contained several dubious IDs, including somebody’s credit card, so, for almost the first time in his life, he made use of a credit card in a discount store, swiping it down the line between door and jamb leading to the optician’s office, forcing the striker back far enough so he could push open the glass door in the glass wall and enter.

It wasn’t until after the door snicked shut again behind him that he realized there were no knobs or latches on its inside. This door could only be opened or closed or locked or unlocked from the outside, because the fire laws required it to be propped open anytime the place was open for business.

Trapped! he thought, but then he thought, wait a second. This just adds whadayacallit. Verisimilitude. Unless that’s the color.

The optician’s shop was broad and narrow, with the front glass wall facing the rest of Speedshop, plus white walls at sides and back, liberally decorated with mirrors and with color photographs of handsome people with bad eyesight.

(No mention of any of these beauteous four-eyed people being stereotypically coiffed  Native Americans, nor would they have been in 2001, but nice foreshadowing.  Also product placement.  I’d have awarded extra points for Foster Grants, but that gag wouldn’t play in Petrovka, kemosabe.)

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The three were more than an odd couple; they were an odd trio. Little Feather, the former showgirl, Native American Indian, was beautiful in a chiseled-granite sort of way, as though her mother were Pocahontas and her father Mount Rushmore. Irwin Gabel, the disgraced university professor, was tall and bony and mostly shoulder blades and Adam’s apple, with an aggrieved and sneering look that used to work wonders in the classroom but was less useful in the world at large.

As for Guilderpost, the mastermind looked mostly like a mastermind: portly, dignified, white hair in waves above a distinguished pale forehead. He went in for three-piece suits, and was often the only person in a given state wearing a vest. He’d given up his mustache some years ago, when it turned gray, because it made him look like a child molester, which he certainly was not; however, he did look like a man who used to have a mustache, with some indefinable nakedness between the bottom of his fleshy nose and the top of his fleshy lip. He brushed this area from time to time with the side of his forefinger, exactly as though the mustache were still there.

(I can’t quibble in the least regarding Guilderpost and Gabel.  Little Feather?   Ehhhhh….  women are under-represented in these illustrations.  One might argue they’re under-represented in the novels, but that’s another subject.)

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“Give me the flashlight,” Geerome said, and a huge white light suddenly glared all over them. Benny, wide-eyed, astounded, terrified, could still make out every crumb of dirt on the cheeks of Geerome and Herbie, the light was that bright, that intense.

And so was the voice. It came from a bullhorn, and it sounded like the voice of God, and it said, “Freeze. Stop right where you are.”

They froze; well, they were already frozen. The three Indian lads standing in a row in the grave squinted into the glare, and out of it, like a scene in a science-fiction movie, came a lot of people in dark blue uniforms. Policemen. New York City policemen.

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(Ho ho ho.  Merry Heistmas.  The Perfect Crime, at last.)

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(Villainy receives its just retribution.  From other villains, but that’s nitpicking.)

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Just one more.  And so fittingly, it happens to be—

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The thing is, I started in life as a stunt driver.”

Anne Marie, surprised, said, “Really?”

“You may have seen the one,” Chester said, “where the guy’s escaping in the car, they’re after him, the street becomes an alleyway, too narrow for the car, he angles sharp right, bumps the right wheels up on the curb, spins sharp left, the car’s up on two left wheels, he goes down the alley at a diagonal, drops onto four wheels where it widens out again, ta-ran-ta-rah.”

“Wow,” Anne Marie said.

“That was me,” Chester told her. “We gotta do it in one take or otherwise I’m gonna cream the car against some very stone buildings. I liked that life.”

(I must confess, I kind of like that there’s not a single picture of Anne Marie in any of these books.  Though I’ve only seen two of J.C., and one of May.  None of Gladys Murch.  Maybe in some of the earlier volumes I don’t have.  I think we can say women are better represented in Westlake’s fiction than they are in these books.  Though rich blondes in hot cars do pretty well.  Or do I mean that the other way around?)

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(This image I could have done without.)

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(Not this one, though.)

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“The shoes, Rumsey.”

He blinked at them. There they were, neatly placed on the floor, midway down the corridor on the right. “I didn’t do that, mum.”

“Well, of course not, Rumsey.” Now she clearly didn’t know what to think. “Mr. Hall put them out there.”

“Oh.”

“Don’t you know why, Rumsey?”

“Take them to the shoe repair?”

“Rumsey, I can’t believe you have been a butler for—”

“We never had nothing about shoes at the embassy, mum.”

She looked skeptical. “Who polished the ambassador’s shoes?”

In that instant, he got it. The boss puts the shoes in the corridor; the butler mouses through, later at night, to take them away to his pantry and polish them; then the butler brings them back and puts them where he found them, only now gleaming like bowling balls. So why hadn’t he known that? And who did polish the ambassador’s shoes?

“His orderly, mum,” Dortmunder said, floundering for the word. “Military orderly. All that sort of thing. Tie bow ties, polish shoes, all that. Specialist, mum.”

“Well, that’s certainly a different way to do things,” she said. “But we may never understand the eastern Europeans. Somehow, it’s all Transylvania, all the time.”

“Yes, mum.”

“Well, do them now,” she said, with a graceful gesture shoeward. “And assure Mr. Hall you’ll understand your duties much better from this point forward.”

“I will, mum,” Dortmunder said.

Buddy leaped forward, raising the sack, as Mark (green ski mask, with elks) and Ace (Lone Ranger mask) jumped to grab Hall’s arms, while Os (rubber Frankenstein head), who was supposed to grab Hall’s ankles, pointed instead at the butler and cried, “Who’s that?”

“The butler,” Mac said, apologetic even though it wasn’t his fault.

“Grab him!” Mark yelled, he already having his hands full with the belatedly struggling Hall, Mark and Buddy and Ace now tugging the sacked Hall toward the trailer.

Up to this point, the butler had just been watching events unfold, interested but not involved; as though he thought of himself as merely a bystander. But now, when Os lunged at him, shouting, “Come on, Mac!” the butler backed away, putting his hands up as he cried, “Hey, don’t call me Mac, I’m the butler, I’m not in this.”

“He’ll raise the alarm!” Mark shouted from halfway into the trailer.

Mac, having already figured that out, leaped forward to join Os in grabbing the butler by both arms and dragging him in his employer’s wake.

The butler struggled like mad: “What are you doing? I got work here! I got things to do!”

What, was he crazy?

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(The final image.  Which in this volume is on the same page as the table of contents, which for reasons I could not guess, is at the back of each book.)

In spite of having studied, at scattered moments of my existence, French, Spanish, Latin, and Irish (never got around to Klingon), I am a lifelong and inveterate monoglot.  (Every bit as unappealing as it sounds.)

And thus, to my lasting regret, I will never be able to read Oleg’s translations.  I can’t savor the unique spin he puts on Westlake’s phrasings, see how he solves all the inherent problems of making him accessible to my fellow monoglots in his homeland (though I shouldn’t assume they have just the one language simply because they don’t have mine).

Like anybody who cares about fiction, and the novel in particular, I have read quite a bit of Russian literature in translation, notably the superlative work of Richard Pevear and Larissa Volokhonsky.  I fell in love with Moliere in high school (oh grow up) thanks to the rhyming translations of Richard Wilbur, and I’d know nothing at all about Gaelic poetry, or be able to enjoy Flann O’Brien’s An Beal Bocht, without those people who straddle diverse linguistic realities, build bridges between them, so that we can see what our brothers and sisters in other parts of the world, and across the ages, have thought and felt.  Skilled translators are rare and precious beings.

(And two of them know what Trump and Kim Jong Un discussed in that meeting, which is more than anyone else can say.  Hmm, which one you think has an accident first?  Do they even bother with accidents in North Korea?  I guess we’ll find out.)

Why do I do all this?  To share my love of Westlake with others who have read him.  Why did Oleg do all he did?  To share Westlake with fellow Russian speakers who’d read him, but (in his estimation) not clearly enough.  He obviously felt something had been lost in translation, and he wanted to try and provide it.

This would be worthwhile in itself, without the quality bindings and paper, without the beautiful evocative artwork (just the image of Tiny in the kitchen alone…!!!!!!)  He could have written his translations, had them printed cheaply, distributed them via the internet, and through personal connections.  (I don’t know what books he translated for a living, perhaps Ray would.)

But in communicating his passion to Alexander, and (in his function as editor of these volumes) to Mr. Turbin, he made this so much more than just improving on existing translations.  And in a fair world, he’d have lived long enough to see all the books come out, and a while after.  But he was a Westlake reader.  And what’s more, a Dortmunder reader.  So what are the odds he thought this was a fair world?

It’s a world where you take your shots, as best you can, while you can, and he took his.

Good shooting, Tovarishch.

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Filed under Donald Westlake novels, John Dortmunder novels

Enconium: Mr. Dortmunder and Oleg, часть вторая (Part 2)

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“It just looks small.  To me it looks small.”

“Dortmunder,” Stan said, losing his patience, “it’s a tugboat.  It’s the safest thing in New York Harbor.  This boat has pushed around oil tankers, passenger liners, big cargo ships from all over the world.”

But not recently.  Labor strife, changes in the shipping industry, competition from other eastern seaboard ports; what it all comes down to is, the New York City tugboat is an endangered species.  Most of the sturdy little red and black guys with the hairy noses and the old black tires along the sides are gone now, and the few still struggling along, like the hero of a Disney short, don’t have much of a livelihood to keep them going.

There’s nothing new, let alone revolutionary, about publishing editions of books you don’t have the rights to.  It’s happened to some of the most famous and popular books ever written.  It even happened to Shakespeare, after his death–that’s why we still have Shakespeare’s work.  Because a small group of friends and admirers (in a time before copyright) collected and published it, in a limited deluxe edition.  You may have heard of it.

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Long after most of you reading this are gone (and perhaps myself as well), the rights of the literary estate of Donald E. Westlake will expire, and anyone with access to a printing press (if such things even exist by then) will be able to publish any or all Westlake novels in any quantity or format they choose.  (Going by e-books I’ve seen, some of his short stories are already in the public domain, though none of his best ones).

From that time onwards, whether the books stay in print or not will depend entirely on whether the interest in reading them, originals or translations, still exists, passed from one generation to the next, across the centuries.  The one thing that keeps fiction in print after an author’s death is passionate readers.  And it was passionate readers who committed this unprofitable act of minor theft.  Relating to 14 novels about a unprofitable pack of minor thieves.

I find great symmetry in this.  I still think copyright laws exist for good reason, and must be enforced strongly.  But of all the storytellers who ever lived, surely this one would be most inclined to turn a blind eye when it came to theft committed in a good cause.  Or even just for the sheer fun of it.  Anyway, no doubt he and Oleg have already discussed it over a few bourbons, if Mr. Westlake had any bones to pick.  Speaking of which–

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In this case, the end paper illustration relates to the first part of the omnibus.  (Though I can’t say I recall this precise scene.)

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(This one I remember.  How are things in Tsergovia, Grijk?)

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(Oh no!  Dortmunder is going to be tortured by Zippy the Pinhead’s evil round-headed cousin!)

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(Kelp on the prowl, seeking a saintly femur.  Probably my favorite illustration from this book.)

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(The stalwart men of the Continental Detective Agency on the job.  After eating drugged pizza, see up top.)

(Your guess as good as mine. Haven’t read this one in a while.)

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(So this guy gets a nod, and J.C. envisioning the great nation of Maylohda does not?  There is no justice.)

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(Finishing up with a nice bit of heraldry.)

Time for one more?  Why not?  Or as they say in Russia–

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(I don’t think Dortmunder and Gus Brock were dressed like this at the Carrport Mansion–where nobody was supposed to be–but what the hell.  Looks cool, don’t have to draw whole faces.)

(And now Dortmunder is in his usual shabby suit.  Continuity with regards to personal appearance and dress is an occasional problem with these editions, but with art like this, am I complaining?)

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(I like the Superman insignia on Wally’s jacket, although it does make me wonder if in some parts of the world, he is considered to be the true hero of the novels he appears in.)

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(My vote’s for this Wally!)

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(Dead.  Solid.  Right.)

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(You all know how I think Max Fairbanks looks.  I suppose that in present-day Russia, it might not be politique to portray him that way.  Still, way too distinguished looking–though I must admit, there is a reference to him being a brandy drinker.  Also, there are Stars of David in the I-Ching?  Who knew?)

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(Dortmunder lifted his gaze from his reproachful knees, and contemplated, without love, the clothing Andy Kelp had forced him into. He said “Who wears this stuff?”

“Americans,” Kelp told him.

“Don’t they have mirrors in America?”)

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(Two Golden Carriages.)

(Laugh clowns, laugh.)

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(For the last laugh shall be ours.  In a Westlake novel, anyway.  Hey, maybe even in real life!  What’s the best that could happen?)

TO BE CONCLUDED–

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Filed under Donald Westlake novels, John Dortmunder novels

Enconium: Mr. Dortmunder and Oleg

So. The project started as a child of love. The publisher, Alexander, and the translator, Oleg, decided to do a definitive Dortmunder collection. 14 novels in 7 volumes with illustration, beautifully bound, on white expensive paper, deluxe run of 70 copies, sort of a fan club edition. Alexander didn’t buy translation rights, Oleg translated for free, since it was a hobby, Alexander printed books just for fun, since these 70 copies couldn’t possibly to bring any money. He had a full time job, he has a small printing house to supplement his income. It wasn’t made for profit. They advertised on a few message boards, got a few subscribers, hired an illustrator X (name to come).

The cover design came from Soviet SF book series ‘Ramka’, highly popular then. The illustrator, a pro, was the only one who got paid. The print run of the first book sold out fast. They made a second, then a third. Among buyers were wholesale sellers, who did most of the sales at book markets, and subscribers from various Russian cities, not only from Moscow.

After the third volume was done, the tragedy happened. Oleg the translator died.

Ray Garraty, via private email. 

I can sometimes imagine people thinking to themselves, as they scan my interminable ramblings, “So who do you imagine yourself to be here, the world’s greatest Donald Westlake fan?” You don’t really want to know who I imagine myself to be, so as the saying goes, don’t ask.  But if anyone ever does, I will have my answer ready.

I am not the world’s greatest Donald Westlake fan.  Not even close.  I am the world’s greatest Donald Westlake blatherskite.  It is not at all the same thing.  Oleg Zverkov was the world’s greatest Donald Westlake fan.

That’s his picture up top, alongside a sampling of his great project, still ongoing as I type this.  Deluxe omnibus volumes of all the Dortmunder novels, in Russian translation (done by himself up to the time of his death), with extensive black and white illustrations (done by Andrey Turbin who is still around, I believe.)

Working as an English to Russian translator, sometimes under the pen name Oleg Smorodonov (I don’t see why translators can’t have pen names too), Oleg discovered Westlake, and through him, the world of John Dortmunder. I feel a pang saying that I never corresponded with him, and will  never be able to discuss his special devotion to Dortmunder, but feel confident in saying this much–they spoke to him.  In the way that certain books will speak to certain readers.  Those books you were waiting all your life to read, and here they are, waiting for you.  That is an experience I am well familiar with.  Requires no translation.

The Dortmunders had all been available in Russian translation for years, but foreign publishers, constrained by the profit motive (much like the domestic variety) do not always want to pay for the best translation possible, let alone high quality artwork, paper, bindings, and this goes double for genre stuff. He looked at the editions available and they were not to his satisfaction.  (Perhaps he thought the English language editions he’d read were not beyond improvement either.)  He imagined something better.  Worthy of the czar of star-crossed heisters. He envisioned a heist of his own.  And for a heist, you need a string.

His friend Alexander had, as you see above, a small printing business, and a love of doing specialty stuff just for the challenge. In a series of conversations I will assume involved intoxicants (because Russia, and because Westlake), Oleg hooked him on the idea of doing the Dortmunder editions he had dreamed of, a limited run, priced just high enough to pay their expenses–a diverting but fiscally unrewarding venture.  I suppose this would technically make Oleg the Kelp of the story.

A break-even heist, at best. Appropriate, when you consider Dortmunder’s overall career stats.  They were in no position to obtain the rights, so they didn’t try.  Russia has long had a contentious relationship with western copyrights–but this wouldn’t be stealing an author’s brainchildren for profit.  It would be abducting them for love, taking them on a grand adventure, returning them not only unharmed but enriched into the bargain.  You see the difference?  I bet Jimmy Harrington would.

Materiel was easily available to a man in Alexander’s walk of life–nothing was outsourced.  Specialists were recruited. Oleg put the best of himself into his translations and the editorial work as well, while Alexander covered the more technical aspects, as well as sales. (These days, Alexander is doing all of it.)

The books started to come out, were eagerly snapped up by enthusiasts and collectors.  The small print runs sold out quickly.  When Ray first heard about all this, he assumed the orders would mainly be coming from Moscow.  But in fact, a lot of folks out in the provinces wanted copies.  Dortmunder spoke to them too.  They also wanted to hold these books in their hands.

And then Oleg died, very suddenly.  Before the task was completed.  Alexander vowed to finish the project in his friend’s honor, as best he could.  Then run off some more copies of each for people who missed out the first time.  And that’ll be it.  He won’t be doing any more Westlakes.  It was Oleg’s passion that inspired him.

And that’s the story.  By no means unique–you may remember, a while back I showcased a Russian collector’s edition of Anarchaos here, which is also pretty great, but for sheer artisan prowess, I don’t think these Dortmunder volumes can be beat.  Anywhere.  Though we should not forget the Parker graphic novels and the illustrated edition of The Hunter from Darwyn Cooke that Westlake gave his okay to before his passing.  Cooke also died young, unexpectedly, before he’d done everything he wanted to do there.  So it’s not some posthumous copyright-related curse.  Just a strange coincidence.  The world is not simple enough to understand.

When Ray told me about all this, showed me some of the artwork, I knew I had to hold at least a few of the physical volumes in my hands.  Never mind that I can’t read them.  I wanted to have them.  Took a while, but three of these sacred icons are in my possession now.

While I can’t evaluate the literary quality of Oleg’s translations, I can see just by the way certain key pages are arranged, that every effort was made to give people not only the letter but the spirit of Westlake.  To get it right.  What else would you expect from the world’s greatest Donald Westlake fan?

So.  Want to see the books?  I ran some scans.  I only have Volumes 3, 4, and 5, which cover two novels apiece.  Oleg lived long enough to translate most of the series, but the remaining novels will be done by someone else.

Although the books are printed in Cyrillic, title and author are clearly rendered in Latinate typography (useful if they ever make it to libraries outside Russia.)  I could just tell you which books they are.  I’m not going to.  If you’re a hundredth the fan Oleg was, you’ll twig to it quick enough just from the artwork.  If you can’t, you need to brush up your Westlake.  Start reading him now.

Without further ado.

Vol 3.

 

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(Not quite how I’d envision J.C. or Tiny.)

(Much better!)

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(Where there’s a Wilbur, there’s a way.)

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(The concluding page.  On to the next book.  Which is–)

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(First the endpaper illustrations–then a rather magnificent two-pager inside the book.  I’ll have to stitch those together. )

(A lot more impressive in the physical volume.)

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(Some pages have decorative illustrations, not directly related to the story–and also, at times, footnotes,  not part of the original book, presumably there for readers less familiar with aspects of American history and culture.  Which includes quite a few Americans, but most of them don’t read Westlake.)

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(If at first you don’t succeed….)

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(The meat packing district is a lot more densely packed than this, but nitpicking.)

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(The best-laid schemes…..)

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(At times, Mr. Turbin likes to show us what the characters are seeing in their heads, instead of just dreary literalism, and I think Westlake would approve.)

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(Literal, but not at all dreary.)

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(“Now, Tim Jepson!  Now!”)

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(I would have preferred Dortmunder ranting at a TV set, with this parting image on the screen, and perhaps a dish of May’s famous tuna casserole on the table, but that would be a lot more work, and I bet they didn’t pay Turbin that much.)

Overall, I think this is the best-illustrated novel of the six I’ve seen, but much more good stuff to come.  On reflection, maybe I better devote one article apiece to each volume.  So a three-parter.  What’s the worst that could happen?  Aw shucks, another spoiler.  Can’t seem to help myself.

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Filed under Donald Westlake novels, John Dortmunder novels

Plug: Mr. Westlake and the Open Road

Trailer for sale or rent, rooms to let fifty cents
No phone, no pool, no pets, I ain’t got no cigarettes
Ah but, two hours of pushin’ broom buys a
Eight by twelve four-bit room
I’m a man of means by no means, king of the road

Third boxcar midnight train, destination Bangor, Maine
Old worn out suit and shoes, I don’t pay no union dues
I smoke old stogies I have found, short but not too big around
I’m a man of means by no means, king of the road

I know every engineer on every train
All the children and all of their names
And every handout in every town
And every lock that ain’t locked when no-one’s around
I sing…

Lyrics by Roger Miller (hey baby, would I lie?)

This morning I arise, like an extra on The Walking Dead, shake off the cobwebs, take some pills (non-recreational, alas), make my way from bathroom to kitchen to desktop.  At the last destination, I am mildly discombobulated to find a new comment for The Fugitive Pigeon review I posted almost four years ago.  Appropriate, since I feel very much like a dead nephew most mornings of late. (I can’t drink coffee anymore.  It would take too long to explain.)

Why, it’s Anthony!  When’s the last time he showed up here?  As Bernard Shaw once wrote to Mrs. Patrick Campbell, having just received a missive from her following a lengthy lapse in their correspondence–“So–you yet live.” 

It is a brief but substantive message.  Somebody has put out the first-ever (to my knowledge) ebook edition of the aforementioned Columba Livia on the Lam.  Westlake’s very first comic crime novel, his most popular book ever at the time it came out, much to the befuddlement of the agent who begged him not to write it.

Many editions have appeared over the years, foreign and domestic, but at the present time it is out of print.  Unless you count pixels as print.  I’ve never been clear on that.  Point is you can have it for Kindle now, if you want.  Don’t have to rely on Amazon Marketplace anymore.  Yes, the cover art is pretty on the nose, but that was true of some of the real books as well.  (Also some very good ones, mainly from those artsy overseas publishers, but I’m partial to the fourth American printing, paperback, from Ballantine Books.  Even though that’s technically a dove.)

The publisher is listed as MysteriousPress.com/Open Road.  Open Road Media is a company that does ebooks, and all the Mysterious Press Westlakes that are currently evailable are evailable through them.  Most of the Dortmunders, Dancing Aztecs, Ex Officio, Two  Much!, all five of the Mitch Tobin Mysteries.

(Hey, when did he write that book about Hitler?  I haven’t reviewed that one.  Oh wait, different Westlake. Possibly different Hitler. What day is it?  Anyone know?  Are my feet supposed to be feeling all prickly like this, doctor?  Are my thoughts supposed to be so scattered?  I don’t  normally have back pain.  You smiled that world weary smile when I brought up the matter of side effects.  “Oh foolish layperson, do you want the miracle of modern pharmaceuticals or do you not?  All for a mere twenty-five dollar co-pay.  Here, I’ll even give you a free sample.  Whole pack of them, right on my desk.  Funny coincidence, that.”)

So there’s no link for me to follow, Anthony was clearly off somewhere in a hurry, no time to chat with his old Uncle Fred.  That’s fine, Anthony.  Go off and enjoy your life, why don’t you?  See if I care!  I bet you can still drink coffee!  Mumbling incoherently to myself, I consult the great oracle Google, and find the e-edition in question post-haste.  But wait–there’s more!

(Well you already knew that from the images up top.  I really have to stop it with the spoilers sometime.  It’s an old habit.  You know, as a boy, I snuck down early one Christmas morning and opened all the presents.  I don’t just mean my presents.  I was always thorough.  Some might consider that a virtue.)

SIX new ebooks!  Westlakes long and unforgivably out of print.   All bearing similarly schematic digital decorations, clashing a mite with the graphic art from earlier Mysterious Press/Open Road editions.  Some starving artist paid off the back rent on his loft with that assignment, I’ll bet. (Unless it was a starving computer.  Do computers get hungry?  I should probably call the doctor soon.)

They’re all good in my book, but I’d place The Spy in the Ointment, Cops and Robbers, and Trust Me On This on any best-of list I compiled for Westlake.  Which is the same thing as saying any list I compile of books to read before you die.  (Good thing I already have. Read them, I mean.  Pretty sure that’s what I mean.)

Some of his finest remain on the most-wanted list,  Looking at you, Adios Scheherazade, and don’t look so furtive, the #MeToo movement doesn’t even know you exist yet, and anyway, you’re on their side, kind of, maybe, I guess.  If they come for you, torches blazing, just shout “Hark! The Ghost of Philip Roth!,” then run for it while they hold up their crucifixes and chant the rites of exorcism.  Waxing Roth, you might say.  (I’m starting to feel better.)

I don’t know what we’re going to do about Up Your Banners.  I really don’t. As piercingly penetrative a perusal of American race relations (biblical and otherwise) as ever I’ve read, and I just don’t know who’d risk putting it out there now.  But it ought to be out there.  It has things to teach that we need to learn.  But there’s this thing called ‘whitesplaining’ now.  Okay, I get it, but seems to me we’ve all got a whole lot of ‘splainin’ to do, and nobody does it better than Westlake.  The real problem is that it’s not any identifiable genre.  A white elephant, you might call it.  In bed with a black one.  (I can just say it’s the medication talking.)

A Likely Story likewise isn’t the right genre, if any, and yet it’s one of his funniest books, and it should at least be evailable, even if there aren’t any crimes committed in it other than adultery.  Anarchaos doesn’t have that problem, and is as genre as they come.  Killy is a murder mystery where the protagonists are union organizers in a hostile factory town–hey, that’s timely.  There’s still some really good low-hanging fruit, as yet unplucked.

The list of Westlake novels not available in any form is shrinking fast.  I don’t know if a Library of America collection will ever happen at this rate.  There may not be enough books no other publisher has taken responsibility for.  Hard Case Crime is coming out with their edition of Brothers Keepers soon (print and pixels, hey big spenders!)  I’m sure more will be forthcoming from there.  Maybe they’ll do the natural follow-up to their reprint edition of The Mercenaries.  (I know Killing Time isn’t the sexiest crime novel ever, but it’s sure as hell one of the bloodiest, and people still read Red Harvest.)

Anyway, I’ll keep watching for the next big digital dump (these all came out on May 29th) and keep you all posted when it comes.  The books I mean, not any hurried trips to the lavatory.  (That being one of the side-effects I missed.)

Every day, in every way, we are getting better and better.  Well no, we’re not.  But at least we have stuff to read while we convalesce.  Sing ho, for the open highway, sing ho, for the open road………..

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Filed under Donald Westlake novels, Help I Am Being Held Prisoner, Uncategorized

Review:The Duplicate Keys, Part 3–Smashing Mercenary Cuties

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Another interesting new and young writer is Donald E. Westlake whose THE MERCENARIES (Random, $2.95) is substantial and effective–if the publisher’s “the first new direction in the tough mystery since Hammett” remains mysterious.  Clay is a troubleshooter for what he does not like to call The Syndicate–an efficient, likable, understandable young man who arranges everything including, when need be, murders.  When a syndicate newcomer is framed for killing a blonde, it’s Clay’s job to turn detective, to find and eventually to execute the real killer. Despite a few (probably necessary but regrettable) concessions to conventional morality, this is a largely excellent job of sustained narrative and observation within the framework of a self-consistent world, alien to law and convention.  (And don’t tell me Hammett didn’t do just that in “The Glass Key.”)

Anthony Boucher, from the Criminals at Large column, New York Times, August 7th, 1960. 

“Clay. Don’t tell me to don’t be silly. I know, I know, you’re fine with me, you’re a nice guy and we have a good time together, but—then you can turn around and be so cold-blooded, talk about giving somebody an accident when what you really mean is you’re going to go out and commit cold-blooded murder, and it’s just as though it doesn’t really mean a thing to you at all. There just isn’t any feeling there, any emotion. And that scares me, Clay. With me, you show feeling. One of those two faces has to be false. I’m just scared it’s the face you show me.”

“You can’t feel pity for a guy you’re supposed to kill, Ella,” I said. “Or you couldn’t do it.”

“Do you want to feel pity?”

“I can’t. That’s all there is to it, I can’t. I don’t dare to.”

“You don’t have to kill, Clay.”

“I do what I’m told,” I said. “I’m Ed’s boy, he’s my boss, he says do, I do.”

“Why? Clay, you’re smart, you don’t have to be Ed’s boy. You could be anybody’s boy. You could even be your own boy, if you worked at it.”

“I don’t want to be my own boy.”

“What’s Ed to you, Clay?” she asked me.

I lay there through a long silence, my head in her lap, her fingers soothing on my temples. What was Ed to me? “All right,” I said. “I’ll tell you a story.”

The question that nags at me is why.

Of course Westlake would start by imitating Hammett.  Hammett meant more to him than maybe any other writer, certainly any other mystery writer.  His second crime novel was a revisionist take on Red Harvest, a book he revisited over and over again across his career.  His first major series protagonist bears more than a passing resemblance to Sam Spade, huge hands, animal magnetism, and all (though Parker has many literary forebears, as I’ve noted elsewhere).  His second major series protagonist, Mitch Tobin, was a re-imagined Nick Charles, with the emotional problems only implied in The Thin Man made much more explicit, worked out in greater detail across five novels.

The Op stories, The Maltese Falcon, The Thin Man–those all resonate across many Westlake books (maybe all of them).  He returned to that well over and over.  I’m not sure I see any strong influence from The Glass Key, in any book other than this, the first he wrote under his own name. The Fugitive PigeonThe Busy Body?  Maybe a touch, but neither of those guys qualifies as a fixer.  Butcher’s Moon has a mobbed up cop who might qualify, but there’s no close relationship between him and the crime boss, for obvious reasons.  There’s a mob fixer in Kinds of Love, Kinds of Death, and that book is clearly a variation on this one, but it’s not about the fixer, or his relationship with his boss–it’s about a disgraced police detective solving a mystery for them.

The final duplicate key–the last I know of.  Recognized as such at the time among cognoscenti–it wasn’t meant to be a secret, what he was doing here (both books begin with the protagonist having a confused conversation with a stutterer who is begging a favor from their mutual boss).

That capsule Boucher review up top is prima facie evidence of this recognition.  Though I wonder if even Boucher recognized that The Mercenaries, as it was then called, was not homage so much as revolt.  More than in any other story of his that derived from Hammett, Westlake was saying here that Hammett got it wrong.  And he was drawing obliquely upon his own past experiences (that no critic knew anything about then) to say this.  And I would say that all the other duplicate keys are evidence that he was not the only one who thought Hammett got it wrong.  Or at least that there was room for improvement there.

But why?  The very first novel bearing his name.  For Random House.  In hardcover.  Maybe the most significant career choice he ever made.  What would that book be about?  He chose to make it a rewrite of The Glass Key.  Which he knew had been rewritten multiple times in the past few decades.  And none of those rewrites were bestsellers (as the original had been).   Most had vanished without a ripple. And the writers who produced them were all damn good.  What made him think he could do better?  Better, perhaps, than Hammett himself? On his first try?

Before we proceed, let’s recap:

The Glass Key: A beautifully written book with a murky repetitive plot and sketchy motivations.  Ned Beaumont loves Paul Madvig like a brother, is loved in return, his loyalty seemingly unbreakable.  He executes his job as fixer with polished efficiency, even though he’s only been in this town about a year.  And just as mysteriously as it manifested itself, his loyalty to Madvig disappears, replaced by a very unconvincing romance with the society gal Madvig has been so unwise as to fall for.  He leaves town with her, no better or worse off than he was before, having cleared Madvig of murder by solving a mystery–shoring up Madvig’s power base before leaving, but leaving his friend a broken man, desolate and alone.  Ned never kills anybody, though he indirectly causes a few deaths.

Love’s Lovely Counterfeit:  A marginal duplicate. Cain tries not to get too close to the original, but his influence is clear.  Ben Grace double crosses his boss (no love lost on either side) first chance he gets, takes charge of the organization, makes mistakes, pays the price, but he’s not bitching about it, goes out on his own terms.  With Ben, it’s all about the girls–who happen to be sisters, which is where he really goes wrong, because that’s how James M. Cain rolls.  Not a terrible book, but not what Cain did best, though he does add some interesting details about the way organized crime ties into politics (and the police force), and makes money primarily by entertaining the masses with illicit (or semi-licit) pleasures, such as pinball machines.  Ben kills once, in self-defense.

Devil On Two Sticks: Wade Miller went back to the original idea of a mobster’s consigliere assigned to solve a mystery–in this case plug a leak.  Find a mole, then whack said mole. Steven Beck feels no loyalty to his boss, nor the boss to him, but Beck is all about the job, doing it better than anyone else–he’s described as more machine than man by a lawyer working for the outfit, gifted with an ability to switch off his emotions, that fails him in the end.  He’s likewise been doing this job for a suspiciously short time–just came up out of nowhere, no backstory, no explanation of how he got into this line of work.  Again, a woman (the lawyer’s daughter)  is the reason his Machiavellian machinations don’t work out as planned, but he leaves under his own steam, alone, having made a moral choice–that means violating his professional ethics.  (Note: In the fifth Max Thursday novel published the year after this, it’s revealed that Beck’s boss and his entire organization got taken down by the law not long after Beck split for parts unknown, though Beck isn’t referenced in that book.)  Beck takes out a few rival hoods who plan to kill him, and accepts the job of killing the mole once he finds him without complaint.  It just doesn’t go that way in the end.

Dig My Grave Deep:  Daniel Port feels a deep (if irritable) loyalty to his mentor and boss Stoker, who wants him to stay and take over once he dies, but is willing to kill Port if he tries to leave, which he’s trying to do for the entire book.  Port feels a deeper loyalty to himself–he’s supremely good at his job, doesn’t really know how to do anything else, but he doesn’t think the job is worth doing, or worth the price you pay for doing it.  He meets a girl (predictable, ain’t it?), who he’d like to leave town with, and she’s good with that, but he gets cheated of his happy ending, perhaps because Rabe (or the publisher) wanted more books about Port, which wasn’t necessarily a good idea.  More useful details on the kinds of things a guy in this position might do to interfere in what is depicted as an utterly corrupt local government.  But on his way out, he provides one of the few honest people left in town with all the ammunition he’ll need to clean it up.  Port can be brutal, but like Beaumont, he doesn’t kill anyone, even if sometimes his choices lead to deaths.

Kill The Boss Goodbye: Maybe the best of these books as a book, but Rabe cunningly reverses the polarity, making it much more about the boss than the flunky.  Cripp, the Beaumont proxy, has never really had an identity of his own, in spite of some extraordinary gifts–his withered leg is symbolic of a withered soul.  His employer and friend, Tom Fell, has had a breakdown, and as a friend, his duty should be to get Fell the professional help he needs.  As his aide de camp, it’s Cripp’s duty to get Fell back to the trenches before a conniving subordinate takes over.  Fell rises to the challenge, then falls before his own maddened hubris.  Cripp presumably falls with him.  We never find out, because it was never really about him–he was just along for the ride, because that’s his karma.  There’s a woman, Fell’s wife, who is the only thing holding Fell together–she’s not the cause of his downfall (that would be Fell himself, hence the name), but in the end, her love isn’t enough to save him either.  Cripp would probably kill for Fell, but it never comes up.  Horse-racing isn’t that violent.

Murder Me For Nickels:  The first of these books to be written in the first person.  Also the first (and only) to approach the material humorously, and therefore does not feature a single dead body, though it makes up for that lack with lots of lusty guilt-free extramarital sex.  (One might wish this approach were more prevalent in the genre.)   Jack St. Louis feels both loyalty and friendship towards Walter Lippit, but he still puts himself first in a pinch, seducing Lippit’s girlfriend (and she him), maintaining a business of his own on the side–he nearly goes down because of the girlfriend’s wounded pique, but she’s also the one who intervenes on his behalf.  When they become a couple, there’s no real hard feelings in either direction, but (in keeping with the original) the friendship and partnership with Lippit is over.  Probably goes into greater detail about what somebody like this does on a daily basis than any of the other books, but you don’t need to corrupt a whole lot of people to have a jukebox monopoly in a small town.  Jack’s a brawler, but he never even thinks about killing anyone.  (He hates guns, and as a general rule, none of these guys makes a habit of carrying one.)

We know for a fact Westlake read The Glass Key, and all three Rabe novels (the last one probably after he penned his own duplicate, also in the first person).  Seems likely he’d have at least scanned Cain’s novel–very influential crime novelist who didn’t write all that many crime novels (and this one got turned into a movie full of red-hot redheads).

The question mark is Devil On Two Sticks, since I don’t know that Westlake ever mentioned Wade Miller.  The marked similarities between that book and this one we’re looking at now could be coincidence, but it would be a lot of coincidences.  I’m pretty sure he’d come across it.  There’s talk in that book about the organization moving into narcotics, and Beck’s against it.  This bush league California syndicate is connected to the Mafia (never mentioned by name), but other than a few lower-ranking guys of Mexican or Filipino ancestry, it’s seemingly all WASPs.  They meet at the boss’ house for cocktails and light sophisticated conversation.  The Sopranos it ain’t.

Westlake’s goal wasn’t documentary realism (unlikely an Italian American mobster in Gotham is going to have some upstater named George Clayton as his second-in-command, though I suppose stranger things have happened).  But one decision he made early on was that it would be set in a real city–New York–and that organized crime would be depicted as Italian-run, and up to its neck in the heroin trade (which is a prime mover in the story–their supplier is in Europe, and if they lose that connection, they lose their power–and then their lives.)

This is a noir whodunnit with an organized crime angle, written for Random House’s hardcover mystery imprint. Which means there’s going to be a corpus delecti at the center of the story, and we’re going to spend most of the book finding out how it got there, and the solution to that puzzle will be the denouement.  Since this is Westlake, it won’t be the real point of the story.  The point is identity, like I said the last time I reviewed it.  But that’s not saying the half of it.

My original review, which I just reread, covered the bases pretty well, considering.  I even caught the similarity between Clay and Daniel Port, since I’d read a lot of Peter Rabe novels by then–but I hadn’t read The Glass Key, the template from which all these books came.  The Master Key.  And for somebody trying to unlock the  mystery where Westlake is going with this, and why, a skeleton key.

So no point in a synopsis here.  Let’s talk about what makes this duplicate different from all that came before.

The setting is New York City–not some fictional burg out in the middle of nowhere, and not the little-known National City, a short drive from San Diego, which Wade Miller used.  The very epicenter of western civilization and the world economy then, and to some extent still today.  The cities in most of the other books don’t feel quite real, because they’re not.  Doesn’t mean the other writers were wrong–sometimes you want that kind of complete control over the locale that comes from inventing it.  But not always.

The protagonist is George Clayton, known as ‘Clay’ to his colleagues.  Raised upstate, like Westlake.  Did a short stint  in the armed forces like Westlake.  Went to an upstate college on the GI bill, like Westlake.  Got into trouble with the law, like Westlake–but worse.  Ran over a young waitress on a deserted road, while driving a car stolen as a prank.  Crime boss Ed Ganolese happened by, and more or less on a whim, helped him get rid of the evidence, coached him on how to avoid paying the price for his mistake.

Nobody could prove he’d killed the girl, but he knew he had, and so did everybody else, and he got the cold shoulder, even from his dad.  Feeling like Ed was the only one on his side, he eventually came across him again, and asked for a job.  It only took him a few years to work his way up from the bottom to be Ed’s right-hand man, described in the papers as a trouble-shooter.  That was nine years ago–he’s 32 now.

This is quite different from all the other books (especially Hammett’s), where the fixer’s past isn’t really gone into, where he’s only held the job for a year or two (and yet performs it with practiced skill), and where his loyalty (if any) to the boss is never explained very well.  Westlake goes to a lot more trouble with motivation than the others.  He doesn’t want Clay to be a mystery to us.  There are a lot of speeches in the book where he explains himself (maybe more than there should be–overcompensation–Westlake cared a lot about character motivation, but needed a few more books to learn how to get it across without hitting us over the head).

Like Murder Me For Nickels (which only came out a few months before The Mercenaries), it’s Clay telling us his story in the first person.  The others all had third person narrators, though Hammett’s never leaves Ned Beaumont’s side for a moment.  In some of the other  duplicates, the POV switched around a bit.  Not here.

Women are important in all these books, but mainly as a way of telling us things about the men.  Ned Beaumont likes women, and they him, but there’s always this offhanded diffidence about the way he treats them.  He can take ’em or leave ’em alone, but they refuse to let him alone.  He eventually leaves with one, but it’s pretty hard to buy that he’s in love with her.  She’s just the next best thing to his friendship with Madvig, which ran its course.

In Cain’s treatment, the fixer (now boss) gets caught between two sisters–using one for her connections, and then falling head over heels for the other, which is always a terrible idea, but never having been in love before, he didn’t know how it can turn your priorities upside down.

In Wade Miller’s book, the fixer falls for the daughter of a colleague, much younger than himself, and she falls for another member of the gang, closer to her age.  This has a devastating impact on him, emotionally.  He’ll never believe in himself the same way again, and he can no longer control his emotions–which lead him to walk away from the organization, after doing something really noble. And a bit stupid (as noble deeds often are), but we’re given to understand he’ll be okay, if not too happy.

The way of a man with a maid was a Rabe specialty–happy endings not so much. Daniel Port finds true lust with a Mexican American girl, but perhaps because he’s got to remain single for as long as the series lasts, he’s leaving town in search of her at the end, and far as we know he never found her.  He finds many others, but if he ever finds The One his story is over, because that seems to be all he cares about (big switch from Beaumont).  Cripp seems to have no interest in women, or figures they’d have no interest in him, even though he’s a good-looking guy from the waist up. Jack St. Louis is the biggest ladies man of the bunch, hooks up with two bountiful brunettes during his book, but he never has much in the way of serious conversation either of them–just banter, as a prelude to sex. (Could be talk is overrated).

Ella, Clay’s girlfriend of a few weeks, a nightclub dancer who he asked right away to shack up with him, is depicted as the ultimate male fantasy–smart, serious, sympathetic, and sexy as all hell.  Unconvincing, being utterly without flaw–but that may be the point.  Clay has to make a choice, and Westlake wants to make the stakes clear.  If he can turn this girl down–since she wants him to go straight, or at least go solo, cut the cord to Ganolese–then he’s got no excuse.  Life made him an offer, and he turned Life down.

And this is why she’s much more central to the story than the other women in the other books.  Even though some of the others were more accurately drawn. She’s Clay’s conscience, and he’s going to talk to her a lot, and listen to her, and be troubled by what she says to him–and what she doesn’t say–that she can’t accept what he does for a living. She knew he was a mobster when they first got together, but she didn’t understand the full implications until later.

Because, you see, part of that living involves dying–murdering anyone Ed Ganolese points at.  Sometimes just hiring a pro, but in some cases, the job requires the personal touch.  At which point, Clay tells both her and us, he turns off his emotions and becomes a machine.  He’s talked to professional killers while engaging their services (Westlake is drawing heavily on Rabe’s influence here), and he says one of them told him he didn’t see how anyone couldn’t enjoy killing.  He disagrees.

It’s an easy thing to take your own private sickness and claim everybody else has it too, so it really isn’t a sickness after all. And who could tell this guy, if he were still alive—the cops got him, finally, when he was enjoying himself so much after one job he couldn’t bring himself to leave the body—that he’s wrong, that the sickness is real, and almost exclusively his own?

A guy who’s never killed can’t say whether killing is enjoyable or not. I’ve killed, so I can refute that madman. I’ve never killed a man I hated. I’ve never killed a man who was doing any good for society in being alive. I’ve never killed a man for personal reasons of any kind.

I’ve killed. Only a few times, but I have killed, and I’ve never enjoyed it. It’s been strictly business, strictly a job I’m supposed to do. And I know if I let any emotion come out at all, it wouldn’t be enjoyment, it would be pity. And then I wouldn’t be able to do it.

What I do enjoy is the reputation I’ve got. Ed knows all he has to do is point a finger and say, “Clay, that guy has to stop breathing, don’t farm it out,” and he knows the guy will stop breathing, and I won’t farm it out to one of the professional triggermen, and I won’t do a sloppy job of it. The law has never come near us for any killing I’ve done personally.

That’s part of the reputation. Dependability, no matter what. I enjoy knowing I’ve got that reputation, and I enjoy knowing I deserve it. The other part is that the people in the organization who know me, or know of me, know I’m the best damn watchdog Ed Ganolese has ever had. They know I can’t be bought, they know I can’t be scared, they know I can’t be outfoxed. They know I can turn emotion off, and they know no man has ever been trapped except through his emotions.

Unlike Beaumont and all the others in this key chain I’ve been examining, Clay has committed multiple murders, in cold blood, before we ever met him, and if that bothers him, he does a good job hiding it.  Not good people, to be sure, but that’s just because Ed never asked him to kill any good people.  He tells Ella that if Ed pointed at her, he’d do it, even though he’s in love with her–this is how he first tells her he loves her–and she sticks around–you see what I mean about the unconvincing part, right?

Hammett and the others didn’t feel comfortable with making an unapologetic killer their hero, for reasons both personal and commercial–that ‘conventional morality’ that Boucher refers to in his review of Westlake’s book is hard to shake, even in crime fiction. But for Westlake, this is not something to be shied away from, danced around.  This is a story about organized crime–Ed Ganolese isn’t a corrupt ward-heeler, but a mafia don, albeit with some influential friends in city government.  Making people who are in some way complicating your business disappear is part of that business.

Even if there are fixers out there who never bloody their own hands–and there are–or never hire a killer–because that’s a lot easier to get away with in fiction–what difference does it make?  You know who you’re working for.  You know what the job is.  You’ve chosen your loyalties, and right and wrong don’t enter into it.  If the boss tells you to make some blonde he slept with go away, and you hire some tough to lean on her, and her baby daughter is there in the car when he leans, and then you pay her off, shut her up–is that better or worse than personally whacking a fellow crook, who’d gladly do the same to you?  I guess we could argue the point.  I guess we will, someday.

Ed Ganolese himself is different from the other bosses in the other book.  We don’t see a lot of him–he’s mainly a voice on the phone, or a brief presence here and there, telling Clay to go find that cutie who set up Billy Billy Cantell for the murder of Mavis St. Paul, and (like Steven Beck, in Wade Miller’s novel) deal with him personally.

We learn about him through Clay, but because Clay is loyal to Ed–feels that he owes him for getting him out of an accidental homicide rap, then giving him a shot that led to his current cushy mobbed-up lifestyle, when he could have just been some ordinary schmo, working a dead end job–because Clay’s identity is all wrapped up in serving Ed–to the point where he knows if Ed goes down, he’s probably going with him–we get the feeling he’s not one of your more reliable narrators, at least where Ed is concerned.

Ella was right, I did like working for Ed Ganolese. I liked everything about it. I liked the feeling of being Ed Ganolese’s strong right arm. I was high enough in the organization so that no one in the world but Ed Ganolese could give me orders. At the same time, I wasn’t in a position of final authority, where the power-hungry boys would like to rush me to the graveyard so they could take over. It was a safe and strong position, one of the safest and strongest in the world, and I liked having it.

That’s not Ned Beaumont, who doesn’t really seem to like his job much, good as he is at it.  Ned, a born loner, just likes having a friend he’d do anything for, and he likes being part of his friend’s family, having dinner at the house with Paul’s saintly silver-haired mother, being treated like he’s Madvig’s old army buddy or something, and he just takes all that for granted, until suddenly he doesn’t, and we never really see the process by which that happens.

That’s not Ben Grace, who despises his boss, and can’t wait to backstab him. That’s not Steven Beck, who could care less about his boss, or his position in the organization (which he could walk away from at any time), but is just in love with the idea of being good at his job.  It’s not the conflicted rebellious loyalty of Dan Port (who is dead determined to quit for the entire novel, but just when he thinks he’s out….), the blind loyalty of Cripp to Tom Fell (that destroys them both), or the cunningly conditional compartmentalized loyalty of Jack St. Louis to Walter Lippit, while still looking out for his own private interests, and screwing Lippit’s girl when he’s not looking.

George Clayton has just decided to define his identity through his loyalty to the man he works for.  He feels no great love for the guy.  They don’t socialize (that’s bad business).  He doesn’t go to dinner at Ed’s house.  It’s 100% professional, and well-compensated as he is, unshakeably loyal as he is, Clay doesn’t think of himself as Ed’s friend.   He thinks of himself as Ed’s servitor.  His good right hand.  Ed uses the phrase himself.  He’s all-in for Ed–but it’s strictly one way.

He’s not being groomed for leadership (wrong background, no family connection, unlike Ray Kelly in 361.) Which is fine by him, because he doesn’t want to be the boss.  And in spite of Ella’s remonstrations, he doesn’t want to be his own man either–take responsibility for his life, his choices.  And that, for Donald E. Westlake, is the unforgivable sin.

Most of the book is Clay dutifully following the trail, interviewing suspects like a cop (he’s painfully aware of how funny this is), crossing names off the list one by one, until he’s got the perp.  It’s well done for what it is, but the real point is to see how smart Clay is, how perceptive about other people–and how blind to himself.

That crack he makes about that hired killer pretending everybody else has the same problem as him–he’s doing the same thing all through the story.  Over and over, he insists that we’re all crooks, in one way or another.  Nobody’s honest, nobody’s clean, everybody’s got an angle.  He makes a persuasive case–but for the wrong reason.  Not to see himself more clearly, but to avoid seeing himself at all.  He tells Ella all about what he does, who he is, because he wants her to be with him, not some image of him she’s invented in her mind–but she sees him more clearly than he ever will.

“As a cop told me tonight,” I said, “I work within the system. Guys like Ed Ganolese, and the organizations they control, exist only because the average citizen wants them to exist. The average citizen wants an organization that can supply a nice, reliable whore when he’s in the mood. The average citizen wants an organization that runs after-hours drinking places for the nights when Average Citizen doesn’t feel like going home at closing time. The average citizen likes a union that’s a little crooked, because he knows some of the gravy’s going to seep down to him. The average citizen even likes to know there’s some place where he can pick up some marijuana if he feels like being wild and Bohemian for a while. And with the number of drug addicts in this country numbering over a hundred thousand, I’m talking about the average citizen. The average citizen also likes to gamble, to buy his imported whiskey cheap, and to read in the papers about desperate gangsters. The average citizen votes for crooked politicians and knows they’re crooked politicians when he votes for them. But maybe he’ll get something off his property assessment, or he’ll be able to pick up a little graft. At the very least, he’ll get his kicks by knowing somebody else is picking up some graft.”

“That’s all rationalization, Clay, and you know it,” she said.

“It isn’t rationalization, it’s the truth. It’s the way the system works and the reason for the system’s existence, and I work within the system.” I got to my feet and paced back and forth, warming to my subject. It was a subject I’d thought about often during the last nine years. “Simple economics shows it’s the way the system works,” I said. “Look, no business can survive if it doesn’t get support from the consumer, right?”

“Clay, this isn’t a business.”

“But it is. We don’t rob banks, for God’s sake. We run a business. We have items for sale or for rent, and the goddam general public buys. Girls or drugs or higher wages or whatever it is, we give something for the money we get. We’re a business, and we wouldn’t last a minute if we weren’t supported by our goddam buying public.”

And that’s true.  Maybe more today than it ever was.  And maybe there’s nothing anyone can do about it, but there’s something anyone can do something about–and that’s himself.  Clay talks a good game about how other people kid themselves, but he’s the biggest kidder of them all.  Because he believes as long as he’s loyal to Ed Ganolese, Ed Ganolese will be loyal to him.

That was the crucial assumption in The Glass Key, and it’s the central flaw of that book.  Beaumont never betrays Madvig, no matter what the inducement. Madvig only betrays Beaumont by withholding crucial information, for what would have to be called unselfish (if irrational) reasons.  Ned Beaumont is a fantasy figure with a credible world-weary edge to him, and nobody did those better than Hammett–but Madvig is pure fantasy. He doesn’t exist.  Not in that job.  Not for very long.  And the novel founders on that problem.  Okay, not everyone agrees with me about that.  But I can think of five capable mystery authors who did.

All the writers who tried their hand at fixing Hammett’s mistake came back to the relationship between fixer and boss.  Why would someone so much smarter and tougher than the man he works for go on working for him, when the price is so high?  James M. Cain said he wouldn’t–he’d take the power for himself.  Wade and Miller said he only cared about doing his job well, and the fixer job was more interesting.  Peter Rabe said one was trying to repay an old debt before he made his exit–another had no self-esteem, needed an idol to worship–a third was just biding his time, delaying maturity.

Donald Westlake said what Shakespeare said before him–the fault is in ourselves.  That we are underlings.  Whether we follow the leader blindly, or blame him for our problems–either way.  We’re not taking responsibility.  We’re failing to know ourselves.  And that makes it inevitable that bosses will come–and they won’t be any great geniuses. Like Ed Ganolese, who makes a critical mistake at the end, and (it is strongly implied) sets up his good right hand to pay for it–they are ruled by their own chaotic emotions.

It’s interesting to me that Westlake didn’t let Ed get away with it.  He wrote a much better novel than this, not long afterwards, about a better man than Clay, who does come to know himself–and Ed Ganolese has a brief cameo in that novel, where he meets his own end.  Doesn’t even get any lines.  And when the trigger is pulled, you know it’s Westlake pulling it.  And I like to think that was also Westlake’s subtextual homage to Wade Miller’s book, since Pat Garland’s downfall is reported to us in an unrelated detective novel.  Westlake did it better. Westlake almost always did it better.  We should remember (and he never forgot) that he stood on a lot of shoulders while doing it.

Did he this time?  Is this the best of the duplicate keys?  Is it better than even the Master Key?

Yes.  No.  I don’t know.  Does it matter?  Do we really read fiction only to rate it? And shouldn’t we rate it most of all by what it teaches us?

Reading this book for the fourth time (Fifth? Lost count.), I was reminded how not good some parts of it are.  Westlake was maybe halfway to finding his voice as a writer.  Parts of it are startlingly sharp and on-point, even today–which only clashes the more with the parts of it that are too by-the-numbers.  The contrivances you can’t avoid in a story like this (or any story) are not well concealed enough.

Too many well-worn genre clichés that he hasn’t quite yet mastered the gift of making his own. Too many stock characters who don’t quite come to life. Ella is more than a mere sex interest, though there’s a lot of (sadly offscreen) sex, and we’re very interested–but she’s less than a fully developed person, a problem Westlake would have over and over again when he idealized women, as he was wont to do at times (his best women were crooks, like just his best men.) A few too many impassioned self-explanatory speeches by Clay, though it was crucially important to Westlake that he get his points across–while we infer all the points left unmade.  The soapbox was another thing he’d learn to conceal better over time.

Of all these noirish narratives, only The Mercenaries is a first novel (well, first novel that isn’t pseudoporn cranked under a pseudonym).  I think each of the previous books is better, each in its own way–and worse, ditto.  I think that’s the story here.  That each writer found his own answer to the question posted by Ned Beaumont and his duplicates, and no answer could ever be perfect, because Hammett’s original pattern was flawed, if intriguing.  The key always shattered in the lock.

But for all that, I would say the door opened a little wider each time, even if the chain stayed on.  Life has certain  unifying patterns, just like keys do.  But it’s the variations in each new pattern that make the difference.  That create the possibility of a different ending to the same old story.  That make us individuals. When the bosses in this world just want us to be machines they can use and control. But we can walk out on them.  Or overthrow them.  Or become them. Or remain loyal to them.  And see where that gets us.

I wonder about Clay.  After all this time.  He’s sitting there in his living room, having sent Ella a message they’re through.  He let himself get emotional about her, and he can’t afford that.  But as he goes over recent events in his head, he’s recognizing that Ed made a stupid emotional blunder, that the cops will capitalize on–they’re going to need another fall guy.  Then the doorbell rings. It’s probably that nameless call girl he ordered, to help him forget Ella, and all her niggling little questions.  But what if it isn’t?  What if he had it figured wrong, this whole time?  What if he’s the fall guy?

Even now, he’s still got a choice.  We’ve been told there’s a fire escape.  He can use it.  He can run to the club, tell his beautiful conscience he’s sorry, she was right all along, and they make a run for it together–or he can turn state’s evidence.  The odds of either path working out are lousy.  But his creator gave him that escape hatch on purpose.  So he’d have the chance of at least going out his own man.  Instead of a pathetic patsy.  That’s one chance we all get in life. For all the good we make of it.  God Save The Marks.

Boucher got one thing wrong in that review.  It’s not conventional morality.  Clay isn’t doomed because he’s a crook, or he murdered somebody in cold blood.  He’s doomed because he’s murdered himself in cold blood.  Alternate morality. Something Donald Westlake (and Richard Stark) would become known for in a lot of much better books coming down the pike.

See, one of the undoubted pleasures of crime fiction is that it gives us an escape from our humdrum lives–a chance to immerse ourselves in a world where the rules and guilts and fears that run our lives can take a backseat for a few hundred pages.  Westlake is writing about himself and his fellow crime writers, as much as Clay, when he puts that speech in his mouth about how us law-abiding folks love to read about criminals, identify with them–as long as we don’t see our own pockets being picked.  (They are, of course, we know full well–just don’t let us see it.)

What made The Glass Key special for Hammett, I think, was that he was doing something different from his other books–instead of bringing law-abiding readers into a criminal underworld, he was bringing the criminal underworld into the world of law-abiding readers.  He could have done a better job of it, and one of the things those who followed his lead were doing was trying to better fill in that gray area he created, inhabited by the fixer and his boss–straddling that fence between lawless and lawful.

Westlake did more than that–he had his protagonist suggest the law-abiding world itself is an illusion.  That we’re all crooked, all on the take, all part of a criminal underworld–and as Clay tells the Puerto Rican kid who parks his car for him, and wants to join the Ganolese mob, “It’s not what you think it is, kid.”

I’m guessing some I know who like this book more than I do (and I do, just not as much) are reacting to this honesty, vis a vis dishonesty.  And the escape hatch it gives them.  But they’re missing a crucial point.  Clay is right in a general sense.  We’re all crooks in some sense.  But it’s the specific sense that kills him. (Unless he found his own escape hatch.)  The creator of Parker and Dortmunder didn’t damn this early prototype for being a crook. He damned him for being a tool.

Even if everybody around you is a crook, that doesn’t prove you have to be one–even if you are literally a crook, that doesn’t mean you have to work for bigger ones. You still get a choice, every day, to go a different way.  And you’re responsible for your choices, whether you acknowledge them or not.  The sin is not being a crook, or even an enabler of crooks.  The sin is lying about it.  “I had no choice” is the biggest lie of all.  That’s just stealing from yourself.

Now I said this is the last duplicate key I know of, and in the realm of print fiction, that’s true.  But in the realm of celluloid fiction, there’s one more.  I’ve seen bits and pieces of it on cable, never watched it all the way through.  I’m going to do that now.

And while I do, I’m going to wonder whose sick sense of humor is responsible for the fact that the people crafting this key, imagining yet one more feckless fixer for a boob of a boss were brothers by the name of Coen.  (The ‘h’ is silent anyway).

One more time, I am moved to ask–who writes this stuff?

I only wish Westlake did.  Holy ghost-writer?  We can but hope.

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